Chelsea Lenhart, MPA, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives
Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly took an unprecedented step to restore voting rights to more than 40,000 released felons. Similar to many states, Maryland previously allowed ex-offenders to vote only after they completed their entire sentence, which included probation and time on parole. Since the legislation passed, the right to vote has been extended to all felons upon release from prison.
Voting rights are considered a state (rather than federal) issue, leading to vastly different policies across the country. How would restoring the right to vote to all felons across the country change the political makeup of specific regions?
Who is a Felon?
A felon is a person charged with committing a felony (typically a crime involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor, and usually punishable by imprisonment for more than one year or by death). The distinction “convicted felon” is ascribed to any individual who committed a felony and was sentenced for their crime. Convicted felons lose many civil rights that are otherwise available to American citizens, such as the right to vote, the right to travel abroad, the right to employment in certain fields, and the right to parental services. Once convicted felons serve their time through the “rehabilitative” prison system, they are still not guaranteed restoration of their civil rights.
State Voting Laws
States vary in how they treat voting rights for convicted felons. In early 2015, a bill was introduced in Minnesota to decrease the amount of time from when an individual completes his/her jail term and the time his/her voting rights are restored. Like 18 other states, Minnesota only allows people to vote upon completion of their entire sentence. Voting rights aren’t automatically restored once a sentence has been served. In Tennessee ex-felons have to apply through the Election Commission to have their voting rights restored, and simply completing the mandatory sentence doesn’t mean that rights are restored immediately.
Vermont and Maine are the two states with the fewest restrictions on voting: incarcerated inmates may vote, as well as felons immediately after being released from prison. In Vermont, the only way individuals can lose their right to vote is if they commit voter fraud. These states may stand out due to historical differences of race and economic class since the Civil War. According to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, laws were passed in post-Reconstruction states to keep blacks and other minorities from voting. Analyzing the map from the ACLU, states with historically large populations of blacks and minority populations consistently have stricter voter disenfranchisement laws. This alienates large percentages of potential minority voters in states across the country.
Backed Along Party Lines
The conversation about felon re-enfranchisement is split along party lines. A study carried out by Marc Meredith and Michael Morse of the University of Pennsylvania showed that there may be incentive for Republicans to maintain the status quo. By examining voter registration records of ex-felons in New York, Meredith and Morse determined that about 62 percent of ex-felons registered as Democrats. Only nine percent registered as Republicans. The trend wasn’t limited to just New York, a traditionally Democratic state. The study also indicated that Democrats would receive more votes in other states they studied, such as New Mexico and North Carolina.
Not surprisingly, some Republicans have been quite outspoken about this issue. In 2004, Chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, Marty Connors, supposedly stated that “As frank as I can be, we’re opposed to [restoring voting rights] because felons don’t tend to vote Republican.” Even more recently, Republican Presidential Candidate Ted Cruz claimed that the “overwhelming majority of violent criminals are Democrat,” in an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.
Would It Change the 2016 Presidential Elections?
Due to minimal studies on the matter, it is unclear how allowing felons to regain the right to vote would affect the upcoming 2016 presidential election. However, if past outcomes are any indication, then it would most likely help the Democratic nominee. A study by the American Sociological Association found that in 2000, if Florida’s 827,000 disenfranchised voters had been able to cast ballots, Al Gore would have won the state, and therefore the presidency, by more than 80,000 votes.
In 2016, nearly 6 million eligible voters won’t be able to vote on election day because of state felon disenfranchisement laws. Many of these disenfranchised voters are out of jail and contributing to their communities. If the conclusions found in the Meredith and Morse study hold true across states, then giving a voice to disenfranchised voters could potentially be a huge advantage for the Democratic party if people report to the polls. It would also benefit minority and low-income voters, who make up a disproportionate amount of disenfranchised voters.
Felon disenfranchisement has real consequences beyond civil rights. Considering that felons are disproportionately minorities due to the historically racist roots of felony disenfranchisement, chances are that if more felons could vote, they would vote democrat. This might explain why republicans are tentative to re-enfranchise felons. Representative democracy relies on the inclusion of all groups in society, and that includes those who have committed crimes and paid their debts to society.