“You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” This phrase could be more accurately stated as, “You can lead a horse to water, but it’s the horse’s right as an autonomous being to choose whether or not to act upon its right to drink.”
Throughout the Freedom Fall series, my colleagues at the Louisville Political Review have explored the history and impact of felon disenfranchisement and argued that the restoration of voting rights to people who have been convicted of a felony is an integral step on the path to forming a more perfect democracy. Having read and agreed with their arguments I was left with a question: how would the electoral map change if we actually restored voting rights to felons? In other words, if we gave everyone their right to vote back right now with no strings attached would it make a difference in elections?
It turns out that this question, like most in political science, does not have a simple answer. The short answer is that it’s difficult to tell exactly what would happen, but most likely we wouldn’t see any major changes. This prompts the question: Why? To answer that we have to look at what the issue of felon disenfranchisement is, how it’s changing, and what factors determine if a person will vote.
Overview of Felon Disenfranchisement
Felon disenfranchisement is defined by the Oxford University Press as the “practice of barring individuals who have been convicted of felony crimes from voting in political elections.” It has a long history in the U.S. beginning in 1792, when Kentucky became the first commonwealth in the nation to limit felons’ voting rights. By the 1860s most state constitutions mandated some form of criminal disenfranchisement and this remained the status quo until the civil rights movement when a few states began rolling back these laws. However, those states were still in the minority. During the early 2000s, the tides began to turn and states like New Mexico, Nevada, and Alabama for example began to repeal voter restrictions. Despite some progress, the practice of felon disenfranchisement continues today with detrimental effects. An estimated 5.8 million people In the U.S. are barred from voting due to felony convictions with Kentucky being the home to more than 197,000 of those people whose rights are not guaranteed.
What do Voting Rights Laws Look Like Across the U.S?
To date, only two states, Vermont and Maine, allow every person to vote regardless of conviction, imprisonment, or parole status. Most states are somewhere in between. Those on the more severe end, like Kentucky and Virginia, have no legislation besides the limited authority of gubernatorial executive orders that protect the rights of those with felony convictions. Some states like Colorado allow anyone not currently serving a prison sentence to vote and some states like Minnesota only withhold voting rights from those who are “currently serving a felony conviction sentence, including probation, parole or supervised release”
Not only are these laws often contradictory, but they are constantly evolving. In Kentucky, for example, it was illegal for felons to vote until Governor Steven Beshear signed an executive order granting voting rights to some felons on November 24, 2015 which was rescinded by his successor Matt Bevin less than a month later. On Dec 12, 2019, yet another change came by executive order, this time by Governor Andy Beshear whose executive order granted the right to vote to nearly 140,000 formerly convicted people.
How Do These Laws Affect Who Will Vote?
The dynamic nature of state laws concerning disenfranchisement becomes a problem when registering potential voters and encouraging people to actually vote. A textbook example of this is seen in Florida. In 2018, Florida amended its state constitution to return voting rights to nearly 1.4 million people upon the completion of their sentences. However, in 2019 a law was passed to amend the phrase “completion of sentence” to include the complete payment of all fines and fees the sentence may have incurred. This came to a head in August of 2022 when 20 people who were formerly convicted of felonies were arrested for casting a ballot in the 2020 election. This was a result of confusion surrounding who was actualy eligible because those arrested were convicted for crimes like murder that were not forgiven by the 2018 law or 2019 amendment. This has had wide ranging impacts and has made formerly incarcerated people, even those who are eligible to vote, wary of exercising their civil rights for fear that they may jeopardize their freedom.
Even when governments try to clarify voting rights by explicitly informing formerly incarcerated people of their right to vote it really doesn’t change anything. A study of New York, New Mexico, and North Carolina showed that voter turnout to presidential elections among former felons remained largely the same both before and after notification was given to released convicts informing them of their right to vote. The ever changing nature of voting legislation has actually resulted in people receiving incorrect information upon their release from prison. Release documents in Colorado that were last updated in 2014 incorrectly stated that parolees could not register to vote despite being distributed more than two years after a 2019 bill was passed explicitly giving people on parole the right to register and vote. This confusion plays a large part but is not the only reason we most likely would not see significant changes in election results even if all felons were immediately granted the right to vote.
Other Factors In Election Results
One of the major reasons that simply reversing felon disenfranchisement would not result in a major shift in the political landscape is simply that people who are generally likely to be convicted of a felony are the same demographic of people who are highly unlikely to vote. Lower rates of voter turnout are seen historically in people who are lower income, who have less formal education, and in young people. Prison populations tend to show very similar trends. The Brookings Institute found that “Two years prior to the year they entered prison, 56 percent of individuals have essentially no annual earnings (less than $500).” Additionally, prison populations tend to have less formal education.
Explicit parallels can be drawn between these statistics and the actual data on voter turnout rates among people convicted of felons. Remember that study about voter turnout in New York, New Mexico, and North Carolina that was mentioned earlier that showed no significant increase before and after formerly convicted people were notified they could vote? Well the overall turnout of ex-felons that they saw was only 10% of the eligible number of ex-felon voters. Another study looked at whether strict voter disenfranchisement laws negatively impacted the eligible population of voters and found that even in places without strict voter disenfranchisement laws the eligible population did not turn out at higher rates.
To answer the main question this article asks: how would the electoral map change if voting rights were restored to people convicted of felonies? It likely wouldn’t. Individual states have constantly changing, incredibly flummoxing, and complex laws concerning felons’ right to vote. These laws have potential to cause confusion and even apprehension in potential voters that can result in lower turnout. Even if all laws surrounding voting rights were crystal clear it probably still wouldn’t change the results of elections drastically. The simple fact of the matter is that demographic characteristics like low education levels, low income and youth are highly prevalent in both the groups of people who are most often convicted of felonies and those who are least likely to turn out to cast a vote. However, this is not to say that people should remain disenfranchised.
Just because someone chooses not to exercise a right does not mean they shouldn’t have the opportunity to do so. That is precisely what makes it a choice. A main goal of this Freedom Fall series, on top of advocating for felons voting rights, is encouraging voter registration. Those looking to learn more about how they can get involved or support this mission can look to groups like the League of Women Voters who advocate for these rights to ensure everyone in our nation has equal access to participate in our democracy.
“If the meanest man in the republic is deprived of his rights then every man in the republic is deprived of his rights.” — Jane Addams, 1903