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Why Is No One Fighting for the Voting Rights of Prisoners and Ex-Prisoners?

Felon voting rights have a bigger impact on elections and are even more racialized than voter I.D. laws.

Photo Credit: Jorge Salcedo/



Voter identification laws have  Democrats up in arms. One of the reasons, as Nate Cohn  illustrated last week, is that they disproportionately affected non-white and Democratic voters in North Carolina. This effect, however, only would have padded Romney's lead in the state by 0.5pt to 0.8pt. In other words, it would only have made a difference in the tightest of elections, and North Carolina isn't close to being the state that determines the winner in presidential elections.

If Democrats want to be upset about something, they should turn their attention to felon and ex-felon voting restrictions. As I  investigated last summer, these rules are quite unusual by international standards. Moreover, they have far more potential to actually change election outcomes than voter ID laws.

In a 45-country study by, 21 countries have barely to no restrictions of any type on felon voting. This includes Germany, Israel, and South Africa. Another 15 countries have limited restrictions. This includes Australia, France, and New Zealand. Putting the two groups together means that less than 20% of the countries studied had complete bans of felon voting. Only 11% of the countries had bans post-release. Even Russia wasn't on this list.

Compare this to the  United States where most states prohibit felons from voting. The two states that allow it are Maine and Vermont. These two states also happen to be the  whitest states in the nation. Another 13 states and the District of Columbia allow felons on parole to vote. Most of these 13 states have incredibly small black populations such as Montana, New Hampshire, and Utah. An additional four states allow those on probation to vote. Nineteen states allow voting once release is final. And the real kicker is that 12 states stop felons from voting permanently if they don't meet certain requirements.

The people overwhelmingly affected by these laws are minorities. Only 2.5%, 5.8 million people, in the voting age population were made ineligible to vote by felon voting laws in 2010, according to  the Sentencing Project (pdf). That percentage tripled to 7.7% among African-Americans. Another way of putting this is that 38%, 2.2 million, of all those stopped from voting by felon restrictions are black. About a million black ex-felons (i.e. those who have "paid their debt to society") are disenfranchised.

Not surprisingly, these voters would vote overwhelmingly Democratic. A study of felon voting patterns (pdf) from 1972 to 2000 found on average 30% of felons and ex-felons would vote if given the chance, and about three out of four would vote for the Democratic nominee for president. This would have doubled Al Gore's margin in the national vote. Of course, it's the vote tallies at the state level that determine winners in United States elections.

I don't need to tell you that African-American voting rights and the southern United States don't exactly have a glorious history. None of the 21 states where incarcerated felons, those on parole, or on probation can vote are in the south. In Alabama, 15% of voting-age blacks are kept from voting by felon laws, and 14% of voting-age blacks are stopped in Mississippi. This percentage climbs to 19% in Tennessee.

In terms of pure numbers, 137,478 of African-Americans in Alabama, 107,758 in Mississippi, and 145,943 in Tennessee are kept from voting. Of the voters made ineligible by felon voting laws in Tennessee, over 40% are black. That percentage is above 50% in Alabama and Mississippi. The vast majority of these are people who have not only been released prison, but are off probation and parole as well.