Elections are decided by who votes — and increasingly, in America, by who cannot. Barriers to voting participation skew policy outcomes and elections to the right in the United States. One of the most racially discriminatory of these barriers is felon disenfranchisement. Nearly 6 million Americans are disenfranchised due to felonies. This may seem like a small share of the population, but the concentration of disenfranchisement in some states makes it enough to shift elections. In six Southern states — Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia — more than 7 percent of the adult population is disenfranchised. Unsurprisingly, given the racial biases in the criminal justice system, the burden does not fall equally across racial groups. In the most definitive research, Christopher Uggen, Sarah Shannon and Jeff Manza find that “one of every 13 African-Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than non-African Americans.” New research suggests this is skewing democracy.
In a new study, three economists find that felon disenfranchisement has a significant impact on congressional elections — enough to swing between one and four House seats in favor of Republicans in the 1998, 2000, 2002, 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012 elections (the numbers vary based on the model and election). The authors, oddly, argue that because these elections would not have changed which party held the House majority, disenfranchisement doesn’t matter for aggregate political outcomes. But research suggests that close elections have long-term impacts because incumbents tend to be re-elected. In addition, even seemingly modest things like vote margin can affect how elected officials vote. At a time when laws are passed on razor-thin margins, every House seat matters.
Another study on felon disenfranchisement finds a key divergence in 2000. Author Edward Burmila finds: “Disenfranchisement rates no longer bear a significant relationship to crime rates, and states won by Republicans have both lower overall turnout and higher levels of ineligible felons in the voting-age population.” His work does not speak to causality, but the results are jarring: In states Republicans are winning, an increasingly large share of the population are disenfranchised