How Massive Voter Disenfranchisement Decides American Elections

The disenfranchisement of convicted felons has altered the outcome of governors races, key senate races, and even presidential elections, says political science professor Marie Gottschalk.

Marie Gottschalk: About 6 million people of the latest data, I think, coming from going into the 2012 election were unable to vote because of a previous criminal conviction and it varies from state to state. Florida is at the very high end of that. Studies have been done and said that this actually impacts elections. If you think about how many, what portion of those people would have voted? How many of them would likely have voted for a Democrat? And you correct for socioeconomic data, that these are people coming from low socioeconomic status who are less likely to vote. You run all that saying all things being equal then in fact had you not had such massive felon disenfranchisement in Florida, the Democrats, Al Gore would have easily won the state and therefore easily would have won the 2000 election and none of us would have known what hanging chads are.

We also had data that’s done on the 1990s and said that a number of governors races would have gone in a different way had there not been this massive felon disenfranchisement. And also key senate races as well. So it affects — it’s so huge and it’s so concentrated in certain states because some, certain states don’t have felon disenfranchisement at all and that certain states like Florida have massive felon, and Virginia, massive felon disenfranchisement that it affects outcome of some elections. After the Civil War, there was an effort to disenfranchise African-Americans and also poor whites because there were fears about the populous movements and blacks and whites joining together. So in the late 19th century, early 20th century we had a massive disenfranchisement in this country. Some states like Louisiana, the turn of the century, only about 15 percent of the “eligible” adult male population was actually voting because of these massive disenfranchisements. So poll taxes, literacy taxes, but also laws that said if you had certain criminal convictions you would not be able to vote. And ironically, in some states, because it was so targeted towards the African-American population in some states it was targeted towards people who had committed petty crimes. So we still have in one or two Southern states where you could have committed homicide, but you’re still allowed to vote. But if you’ve committed petty theft and convicted of that, you’re not allowed to vote. And this is a vestige from the Civil War years when whites were more likely to have committed homicide and African-Americans were going to be picked up for many of these more petty crimes and therefore be disenfranchised.

Some states have been extending the franchise again so they had a very important ballot measure in Rhode Island a few years ago. And a very effective campaign led by formerly incarcerated people, some of whom had done very serious crimes and they were able to frame this issue in a way that resonated with the public. And in fact re-enfranchised a number of people. In some other states, we’ve had backsliding depending on a switch in the legislature, a switch in the governor’s offices. I think it’s important to see felon disenfranchisement as part of this larger big contraction of the U.S. voting population now. So it’s part of voter ID, voter registration, closing down polling booths, reducing the number of days that people can vote. And in the 2000 election, it wasn’t just that people were disenfranchised, but it was also how that was politically used. So there was not an effort to have accurate lists of voters so that you were not only disenfranchised, but you had an inaccurate list. And then you had the fears of people going to vote that day and being told you’re a convict. So then that’s going to keep you home too because of that public stigma. So I think when we think felon disenfranchisement, we can’t just think about these 6 million people. We have to think that this is a larger strategy about shrinking the electorate in the United States.

The massive disenfranchisement of convicted felons — totaling 6 million uncounted potential votes in the 2012 presidential election — has decided governors races, key senate races, and even presidential elections, says political science professor Marie Gottschalk. Sadly, this is only one way the American electorate has been undemocratically shrunk. Voter identification laws, poll taxes, literacy tests, and disenfranchisement laws that historically targeted poor individuals are a lasting stain on our democratic principles. "This is a vestige from the Civil War years," says Gottschalk, "when whites were more likely to have committed homicide and African-Americans were going to be picked up for many of these more petty crimes and therefore be disenfranchised." Some states, like Rhode Island, are working to re-enfranchise a number of people, but there is much more to be done.

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