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July 12, 2012

Big new Sentencing Project report on felon disenfranchisement

The Sentencing Project has just published this new report titled "State-Level Estimates of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 2010." The report provides comprehensive estimates of the extent of disenfranchisement in all 50 states, and here is how it gets started:

The United States is one of the world’s strictest nations when it comes to denying the right to vote to citizens convicted of crimes.  A remarkable 5.85 million Americans are forbidden to vote because of “felon disenfranchisement,” or laws restricting voting rights for those convicted of felony-level crimes.  In this election year, the question of voting restrictions is once again receiving great public attention.  This report is intended to update and expand our previous work on the scope and distribution of felon disenfranchisement in the United States (see Uggen and Manza 2002; Manza and Uggen 2006).  The numbers presented here represent our best assessment of the state of felon disenfranchisement as of December 31, 2010, the most recent year for which complete data are available.  Our goal is to provide statistics that will help contextualize and anticipate the potential effects of felon disenfranchisement on elections in November 2012.

Our key findings include the following:

  • Approximately 2.5 percent of the total U.S. voting age population -- 1 of every 40 adults -- is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction.

  • Ex-felons in the eleven states that disenfranchise people after they have completed their sentences make up about 45 percent of the entire disenfranchised population, totaling over 2.6 million people.

  • The number of people disenfranchised due to a felony conviction has escalated dramatically in recent decades as the population under criminal justice supervision has increased.  There were an estimated 1.17 million people disenfranchised in 1976, 3.34 million in 1996, and over 5.85 million in 2010.

  • Rates of disenfranchisement vary dramatically by state due to broad variations in voting prohibitions.  In six states -- Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia -- more than 7 percent of the adult population is disenfranchised.

  • 1 of every 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than non-African Americans. Nearly 7.7 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.8 percent of the non-African American population.

  • African American disenfranchisement rates also vary significantly by state. In three states -- Florida (23 percent), Kentucky (22 percent), and Virginia (20 percent) -- more than one in five African Americans is disenfranchised.

July 12, 2012 at 05:41 PM | Permalink


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Plus there's evidence to suggest at least a correlation between recidivism rates and disenfranchisement policy. Disenfranchisement is very poor social policy that is a vestige from a pre-democratic era. Unfortunately recent evidence suggests that some states are moving in the direction of disenfranchising more of their citizens.

Posted by: Guy | Jul 12, 2012 9:35:09 PM

Giving the vote would only add Democrat votes. On that basis, the report from a left wing propaganda outlet is too self serving to have any credibility.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 12, 2012 10:41:11 PM

sounds to me like time to bring back and old saying "No taxation without representation" sorry if they have no vote the state has no right to tax them! Since they are NOT citizens! CITIZENS have a vote in the society they are part of! and if they are NOT in prison they ARE part of society!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jul 13, 2012 2:35:34 AM

Michigan has about 50,000 felony convictions a year. My understanding is that about one Michigan adult in every six has a felony conviction. While we do not disenfranchise felons once they're out of prison, those who move elsewhere face possible disenfranchisement. Because our numbers for convicted felons are so high, I find the 2.5% figure surprisingly low, though I realize the difference between being a convicted felon, and being disenfranchised.

Posted by: Greg Jones | Jul 13, 2012 11:12:53 AM

I have never understood the public policy benefit of felon disenfranchisement. For every offense that offers the possibility of release, a return to productive citizenship ought to be the desired outcome. I can't imagine that Society gains much by refusing these people the right to become fully participating citizens.

Is it just political cynicism (i.e., removing voters from the electorate who are presumed to be likely Democrats)? Or is there an articulable non-partisan explanation why society is better off without their votes?

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jul 13, 2012 12:58:30 PM


I think there's two reasons for felony disenfranchisement, neither are particularly coherent. First is that it is simply tradition. Felony disenfranchisement is the modern version of civil death -- practiced in the American Colonies, and borrowed from England which in turn came from Medieval Europe. In short, it's been around a while. The modern form, however, is really an outgrowth of the Reconstruction. It became the favored way of re-admitted southern states to continue to disenfranchise african-americans (i.e., Jim Crow laws).

Second is that it is absolutely all about vote suppression. You only ever see Republicans going after ratcheting up restrictions on voting -- and they make noises about protecting the integrity of the election system, purity of the ballot box, and other equally ridiculous things -- but in the end it's all about disenfranchising a population that's likely to lean left as opposed to right.

And you're absolutely correct that a return to productive citizenship ought to be the desired outcome. There's statistical evidence to suggest that disenfranchising felons may lead to more crime via the sort of creation of a permanent criminal underclass. From just a social perspective, disenfranchisement is a hot mess, even though it may be politically expedient for certain parties.

Posted by: Guy | Jul 13, 2012 1:16:16 PM

"There's statistical evidence to suggest that disenfranchising felons may lead to more crime via the sort of creation of a permanent criminal underclass."

Really? Evidence of causation and not merely correlation? Have a cite for that?

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jul 13, 2012 1:22:37 PM

Yeah, it would be tough to prove causation.

But beyond that, I would ask Kent why he wouldn’t want released felons to return fully to productive citizenship? For those whom we choose to release, shouldn’t that be considered a good thing?

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jul 13, 2012 3:28:21 PM


I did use the word "may" and "suggest" -- as the evidence that I am familiar with is correlational. It would be difficult, indeed, to come up with data to support a causal theory given all the various factors and utter lack of conduct any kind of a controlled experiment. Nevertheless, there does exist a correlation between disenfranchisement policy and recidivism.

As far as a cite is concerning, I can provide you with one as soon as my law review gets inked here in the next month or so.

Posted by: Guy | Jul 13, 2012 3:28:21 PM

Wow, and please forgive my typos, lol.

Posted by: Guy | Jul 13, 2012 3:31:26 PM


I do favor a path to restored voting rights for most cases, but I see no reason for it to be at the same moment as release from prison. For someone convicted of, say, burglary, let him maintain a clean record and honest employment for a few years to demonstrate he has really gone straight.

Murderers: never.


No need to give me the citation to a correlational study as I would give it no weight anyway. Given all the factors that go into recidivism, I find it facially implausible that mere voting has any causal effect and would need considerably stronger empirical evidence than that to convince me otherwise.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jul 13, 2012 4:28:44 PM


The study isn't actually about voting, but about disenfranchisement policy. Although there are several other studies that suggest voting *behavior* is associated with reduction in crime, that's likely attributable to third-variable causation (e.g. some other variable influencing someone becoming a more productive member of society, of which voting is then a result).

What separates this study is that it's not looking at behavior on a micro level, but rather state-wide policy differences and then trends in recidivism whilst simultaneously controlling for a host of other variables which are connected up with recidivism. Together with the theoretical model that's provided, I (and so does the school that's publishing it, apparently) think there's a strong argument to be made for it. But if you don't want o read it, that's fine. I'm sure you probably wouldn't like it anyway.

Posted by: Guy | Jul 13, 2012 8:34:48 PM

The modern form, however, is really an outgrowth of the Reconstruction. It became the favored way of re-admitted southern states to continue to disenfranchise african-americans

Posted by: Saints Snapback | Sep 11, 2012 8:10:37 PM

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