Since the Florida election of 2000 (where 600,000 citizens with criminal convictions were barred from voting), felony disenfranchisement has attracted a lot of attention. Over the last three decades, 12 million Americans have lost the right to vote for all or most of their adult lives. It's no surprise then that many politicians believe that "these people don't vote anyway" – a convenient rational for ignoring them.
But that may be about to change.
While it is true that many with felony convictions are unable to vote, at least four million others in the criminal justice system (or recently released from it) are legally eligible to vote. This includes over 700,000 now in city and county jails; 2.25 million on probation or parole (in states that allow them to vote); and well over a million who have finished their sentences in recent years.
We have been interviewing current and former prisoners in New York, Connecticut and Ohio about their voting histories, attitudes about voting, and knowledge and understanding of the rules of disenfranchisement that apply to them. We find that prior to disenfranchisement they registered and voted at rates similar to the general population (40 to 50 percent) and most would like to do so again.
As few realize they have the right to vote, their registration and voting rates post-release are reduced to half of what they were before. This is accompanied by a time lag in getting back on the roles that effectively doubles the years of voting life lost to disenfranchisement.
A recent study by The Sentencing Project finds sharp disparities in the effects of disenfranchisement by race: in Atlanta, one of every seven African American males is disenfranchised. So as the imprisonment rates for blacks has climbed over three decades, long traditions of voting in many black families have been broken – each successive generation votes at lower rates than the previous one. This is true of all Americans since the 1960s, but the rates are most pronounced in black communities, where 30 to 40 percent of the men have been disenfranchised. A study by the University of Virginia School of Law finds that in states with the harshest disenfranchisement laws the overall voter turnout among African Americans is 13 percent lower than those who disenfranchise only for prison time.
And that may be no accident.
Among the large populations recently released from prison, parole, or probation (and now eligible to vote) there is widespread misinformation about the disenfranchisement rules deterring many eligible voters because it is a felony to even try to vote if you are ineligible. Florida made it a point to widely publicize this intimidating fact again this year until stopped by a court. In one area of Georgia, all Hispanic voters are now being called in, 6 days before the election, to present "proof of citizenship."
In Connecticut, which two years ago halved the size of their disenfranchised population by rescinding probation disenfranchisement, we found that two-thirds of probationers and parolees still did not know they were able to vote 72 percent said no judge, parole or probation officer or lawyer had ever said a word about the issue to them. Another 60 percent thought that anyone is ineligible to vote if they'd "ever had a felony conviction," and fewer than half of those actually eligible to vote right now , believed that they would ever be eligible to vote again. In Ohio we found similar beliefs widespread among jail inmates and probationers, all of whom have the right to vote there.
What can be done about this de facto disenfranchisement whose numbers exceed those who are disenfranchised de jure? In most states there is an automatic computerized system to "purge" felons from the voting roles as they are convicted. But there is no comparable process to reinstate them once they finish their sentences. In response, Connecticut authorities are now placing voting information and registration cards in all centers where prisoners get processed out. They are even discussing producing a video to tell re-entering prisoners the rules and routines for registration and will provide registration cards at discharge,
Serious efforts to mobilize this large hidden vote have been underway in this election year by the National Right to Vote Campaign and many local organizations. In Ohio the Racial Fairness Project has been successfully educating prisoners about their voting rights in the jails and registering eligible inmates – 1,500 in the Cleveland jail alone. As a result 74 percent got the right answers on a test of their knowledge of the rules. A few weekends ago the Fortune Society of New York sent 10 parolees (barred from voting by New York State law) to Cleveland to tell their Ohio counterparts – "we can't vote but you can – so do it!": they helped sign up over 500 inmates to vote in the upcoming election.
This huge but forgotten pool of voters may soon have their voices heard again in the electoral process. Some key states now have more formerly disenfranchised (but now eligible) voters than the 2000 gap between Bush and Gore: in Ohio (where Bush won by 165,000 votes) there are 225,000 eligible voters in the criminal justice system today. And, with millions of these "hidden votes" in play nationally, ex-felons votes could be decisive in another close election this November.
Dr. Ricardo Barreras