The Corner

Felon Voting: A Cynic’s View

Regarding Eric Holder’s call for the restoration of voting rights for felons, a simple observation.

The estimates of the number of people who have either temporarily or permanently lost the right to vote due to a felony conviction hover between 4 to 5 million. Several studies have shown that even allowing for lower participation rates, the restoration of voting rights to felons would’ve changed the results in several congressional elections.

A few years after George W. Bush’s razor-thin margin of victory in Florida over Al Gore, a study by Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota and Jeff Manza of Northwestern showed that felons who do have the right to vote exercise it overwhelmingly for Democrats – at a rate approaching 70 percent. And even that estimate may be low. In some Florida counties more than 80 percent of felons who voted illegally in the 2000 election were registered Democrats. In fact, had Florida felons voted in the 2000 presidential election at a rate comparable to the rest of the Florida electorate, Al Gore would’ve won the state by more than 60,000 votes and, well, An Inconvenient Truth would never have been made.

In support of his argument, Holder resorts to the racial disparity theme. After all, claims of racial disparity generate greater public sympathy than concerns that criminals won’t get to elect the next president. Advocates of felons voting maintain that nearly 1.5 million black men are prohibited from voting due to felony convictions. Some estimates show that at the incarceration rates prevailing over the last few years, up to 35 to 40 percent of black men will be disenfranchised in some states. Felon-voting advocates sometimes resort to these statistics to provide Fourteenth Amendment support for overriding state restrictions on felon voting. Unfortunately for them, franchise qualifications are generally the prerogative of the states and voters tend to oppose, by overwhelming margins, giving felons the right to vote. Almost every state has felon-voting restrictions. The restrictions vary by state and reflect the prudential judgments of their respective electorates as to the type of felony that should trigger disenfranchisement, the length of the voting bar, and mechanisms for restoring an individual’s voting rights.

But hey, maybe Holder’s boss will waive those provisions too.


Peter Kirsanow — Peter N. Kirsanow is an attorney and a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

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