Menus Subscribe Search

True Crime

falons-voting

(Photo: albund/Shutterstock)

The Wild Illogic of Barring Felons From Voting

• February 18, 2014 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: albund/Shutterstock)

And what Attorney General Eric Holder missed in his recent speech on, among other things, the disproportionate burden of voter disenfranchisement of felons felt by minorities.

Last month, former Kentucky basketball star Richie Farmer, who had traded on his fame to get himself twice elected as agriculture commissioner, was sentenced to 27 months in prison for misappropriating public funds. A federal investigation had uncovered that Farmer had bought “excessive gifts” for himself and his friends with state cash, hired friends and family without expecting them to work at all, and ordered state personnel to drive him on hunting trips and also build him a personal basketball court.

Farmer is just the most recent notable example of an elected official being caught in a crime; history books are thick with the names of local, state, and federal officials convicted of corruption and other, even less savory deeds. If our elected officials so often turn out to be criminals, isn’t it odd that we won’t let criminals vote?

Farmer’s home state of Kentucky just so happens to be one of four states in the nation (along with Florida, Iowa, and Virginia) with a policy that prohibits felons from voting, for life, unless they receive special clemency from the governor. Maybe Farmer will be one of the lucky few.

“While George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes in 2000, more than 800,000 Floridians with criminal records were barred from voting.”

According to the non-profit research group The Sentencing Project, an estimated 5.8 million Americans are barred from voting because of a felony conviction, nearly half of whom have completed their sentences. This number has increased dramatically over the past four decades or so—not necessarily because the disenfranchisement policies have gotten stricter, but merely because the number of people involved in the criminal justice system has grown.

The group’s research also looked into the impact of these polices on minorities in the U.S., finding that “one of every 40 adults is disenfranchised nationally, but among African Americans the figure is one of every 13.” In three states with the strictest disenfranchisement policies (Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia), more than one in five African Americans are barred from ever voting.

But there is reason to hope that this trend may be reversing. While appearing at a civil rights conference last week, Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech about, among other things, the disproportionate burden of voter disenfranchisement of felons felt by minorities. He placed the current policies in their proper historical context, starting as they did in post-Reconstruction Southern states that “enacted disenfranchisement schemes to specifically target African Americans and diminish the electoral strength of newly-freed populations.” By 1890, Holder said, 90 percent of the prison population in the South was black. Today, every stage of the criminal justice process in the U.S., from arrest to imprisonment, is disproportionately experienced by people of color.

Although this is an issue legislated on the state level, and Holder can’t force states to change their policies, he succeeded in bringing attention to it. The speech was met with support from newspaper editorial boards, and from some, but not all, state governors. Many commentators picked up on a study mentioned by Holder (which can be downloaded here) conducted by a Florida parole commission that had found that former prisoners who were given the right to vote after they’d served their sentences were less likely to return to prison than those who remained disenfranchised. The New York Times referenced a 2002 study (co-written by one of the authors of the Sentencing Project report) showing that disenfranchisement policies may have decided seven Senate races as well as the 2000 presidential election. “While George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes in 2000, more than 800,000 Floridians with criminal records were barred from voting,” wrote the Times editors.

Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project, stresses that Holder’s remarks were very important, and were well received among her colleagues. But, while not wanting to diminish its significance, she also highlights out a nuanced point that was missing from his speech.

“[Holder] specifically called for the rights restoration for people who have completed their sentence,” Porter says. “In theory, that’s a good place to start, but there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who are living in the community, and who may be living in the community under supervision for the rest of their lives, who, depending on where they live, may be disenfranchised for the entire time…. They should have the ability to participate in our democracy.”

Rhode Island is one state that has recently changed its policy, Porter says; it still bars voting for the current prison population, but allows voting while on probation and parole. Vermont and Maine are still the only states without any type of felon disenfranchisement, where people can vote even while serving time in jail.

According to The Sentencing Project’s estimates, there are “hundreds of thousands” of people living under supervision, Porter says, who are technically still serving a sentence, and who therefore would not be allowed to vote even if state legislatures do eventually act on the Attorney General’s statement last week. So Holder’s recommendations, while groundbreaking, need to go even further, she says—especially given the size of the “footprint of the criminal justice system,” which is already large, and growing all the time.

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

More From Lauren Kirchner

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.