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Disenfranchisement News: Growing Momentum for Restoring the Right to Vote

July 31, 2015
Presidential candidates' felony disenfranchisement records, growing momentum for restoring the right to vote, and more in our latest Disenfranchisement News.

Disenfranchisement News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Presidential candidatesfelony disenfranchisement records

The felony disenfranchisement records of both Florida GOP presidential candidates, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and former Governor Jeb Bush, may draw negative criticism as calls for criminal justice reform and “Black Lives Matter” protests continue to gain national attention. Florida has the nation’s highest rate of felony disenfranchisement, with over 1.5 million people and 23% of the state’s black population unable to vote due to a felony conviction. During Sen. Rubio’s 2010 campaign for Senate against former Governor Charlie Crist, he repeatedly criticized Crist’s efforts to automatically restore voting rights to people convicted of non-violent offenses. While Jeb Bush was governor, the state tightened its disenfranchisement policies and used a flawed method to purge people believed to have a felony conviction from its voter rolls before the 2000 presidential election. Many of the people purposefully and mistakenly purged from the voter rolls were people of color. The outcome of the 2000 election was decided in Florida by 537 votes. “On the day of that national election there were an estimated 600,000 ex-felons in Florida who were not able to participate in the vote,” says Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, in the New Zealand Herald. “How many would have voted? How would they vote? We can only guess. But I think it’s certainly quite possible a national election was decided based on disenfranchisement policies in that one state.”

Growing momentum for restoring the right to vote

More and more states are beginning to consider legislation to ease voting restrictions for people convicted of a felony. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures,18 states considered felony disenfranchisement reform this year, up from 13 states last year. Wyoming was the only state to pass a bill this year, which restored the right to vote to people who have completed their probation or parole for certain non-violent felony offenses. Over the past two decades, more than 20 states have taken action to allow people with felony convictions to vote or to access that right more easily. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the growing momentum on criminal justice reform is also fueling the support for voting rights restoration across the political spectrum. “Leaders of both parties are acknowledging that we imprison too many people for too long, and do not provide adequate opportunities for people to reintegrate into society — rather than recidivate — after they leave incarceration.” A study by the Florida Parole Commission found that the recidivism rate among people whose voting rights were restored was one-third the rate of those who remained unable to vote.

During President Obama’s recent weeklong push for criminal justice reform, he came out in support of restoring the right to vote to people with felony convictions. “If folks have served their time and they’ve re-entered society, they should be able to vote,” said the President at the NAACP annual conference in Philadelphia.

The “war on drugs” and black disenfranchisement

The 40-year war on drugs, which has disproportionately incarcerated young black males, has been the “main instrument” for excluding people of color from the voting booths, writes the New Zealand Herald. Although blacks and whites engage in drug use at comparable rates, blacks represent 31 percent of all drug arrests and over 40 percent of people incarcerated in state and federal prison for drug crimes, according to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report. “While one in 40 citizens is disenfranchised nationwide, this rises to one in 13 for blacks. In Florida, Kentucky and Virginia one in five blacks is disenfranchised.”

Racial attitudes and ideology affect support for restoration of voting rights

New research in the DuBois Review: Social Science Research on Race by David Wilson, Michael Owens and Darren Davis examines how racial attitudes and political ideology affect restoration of rights for people convicted of a felony. Using nationally representative survey data, the researchers found that racial resentment is a primary driver of attitudes regarding the restoration of political rights for people with felony convictions for both conservatives and liberals. “As levels of racial resentment increase, individuals are less likely to support congressional action to restore felon’s voting rights, to believe that restoring voting rights will make society better, and to believe that felons should be allowed to hold public office, even after completing their sentences.” In addition, the researchers found that conservatives, at all levels of racial resentment, tend to be more opposed than liberals to restoring voting rights for people with felony convictions, yet racial resentment is most politically influential when expressed by liberals.

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