by Keith Sanders
Mass incarceration disenfranchises millions in America, especially the economically disadvantaged who make up the majority of those incarcerated. Though the rationale for barring felons from voting is multifaceted, one argument is that a bloc of voting felons would somehow skew election outcomes. However, a study published in the January 2022 issue of the Journal of Politics put that idea to rest.
Ariel White, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with undergraduate student Avery Nguyen, examined voting records in the seventeen states that currently restore voting rights to felons upon release from prison, as well as two states, Maine and Vermont, that allow incarcerated people to cast a ballot. The academics’ goal was to compare the percentage of felons who vote with the general electorate to gauge their potential impact on elections if re-enfranchisement expanded to more states.
In Maine, where 60% of voters turn out for elections on average, the share of incarcerated felons casting ballots came in at just 6%. The rate in Vermont was only slightly higher, but at 8% it was still significantly below the state’s 57% average voter turnout. Moreover, the share of potential voters who are incarcerated in those states is so low that in most instances, “[e]ven 100% turnout by incarcerated people in support of a given candidate would not have changed the electoral outcome,” the researchers reported.
Turning to the states where felons are currently re-enfranchised after release from prison, the researchers then looked at the tightest recent election and asked: If the vote were extended to those currently in prison, could they affect an election outcome?
Unlikely, they concluded.
In Nevada, where the tightest statewide race had a vote margin of 4,533, fully 36% of the state’s 13,742 prisoners would need to vote in order to have an effect—a rate 4.5 to 6 times higher than that of prisoners in Maine and Vermont. In all other states, the percentage required was even higher.
As for states that do not automatically re-enfranchise felons upon release, past studies have revealed that their turnout rates would range from only 5% to 18%, which is also too small to impact the outcome of elections, according to the researchers. Their conclusion:
Felons do not turn out to vote in numbers high enough to matter.
“Our estimates suggest that if other states were to [re-enfranchise] people while incarcerated, this change would yield relatively few new votes, and this additional participation would be unlikely to change state-level election results,” they said.
The study might not allay partisan fears of voting felons and prisoners, who are courted by Democrats but who may align temperamentally with the GOP. However, it also points to an untapped potential: With both re-enfranchisement and much higher turnout, a significant voting bloc of felons and incarcerated people could have the power to alter election outcomes—precisely the kind of power needed to change the policies behind mass incarceration in America.
Source: How Often Do People Vote While Incarcerated? Evidence from Maine and Vermont, Science X Network
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