Want To Drive Voter Turnout In 2020? Stop Arresting People.
Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.
Democrats who hope to retake the White House in November are seeking to turn out voters—a lot of them. According to one information systems professor who worked for President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, “Black neighborhoods in key swing states hold enormous power to reshape politics in November and beyond.”
But there are various hurdles, including the fact that Black people are targeted by law enforcement at vastly disproportionate rates. This turns out to be a significant determinant of whether a person will vote, or otherwise participate in politics. If Democrats are serious about increasing political participation in the Black community, they will stop locking them up in such large numbers.
Much attention is paid to the effects of disenfranchisement among people who have criminal convictions, but even among those who are allowed to vote, people who have had convictions vote at very low rates. In an article published in Chicago University Press’s Journal of Politics, several academics explained how they used data on voting and interactions with the criminal system from Pennsylvania to assess whether the association between incarceration and reduced voting is causal. They found that serving time in prison makes the likelihood of voting fall sharply, and, in some tests, makes it vanish entirely.
University of Kansas researcher Brandon Davis published a study late last year detailing not only the fact that contact with the criminal system drives down political participation but also what types of contact influence participation. “There’s a lot of existing research that will tell you carceral contact has effects on political participation, but they don’t tell you how it happens,” Davis told KU News Service. “This paper is about understanding how it happens, and that understanding can help inform how to address problems of citizens who aren’t engaged.”
“Among the findings that stand out to me was that having a network contact was more powerful than personal contact,” Davis said. “If a person has a family member or someone they know in jail, it had a greater effect than, say, being pulled over.” He found that network contacts had a negative influence on feelings of civic duty and trust in government, and increased distrust of government, in turn, led to lower political participation.
“In a society founded on petitioning government and participation, the study of the political consequences of carceral expansion has major implications for what it means to be an American citizen,” Davis wrote. “My results demonstrate that carceral contact is negatively impacting citizen engagement, not just for those directly contacted but also for their family members and communities. Individuals who simply live in areas with high levels of carceral contact are likewise experiencing demobilization effects, amplifying the total effect. It is time scholars took notice of the ramifications of predacious institutional interactions.”
Vermont and Maine are the only two states that do not take away a person’s right to vote, which means those imprisoned there can fill out ballots and participate. But, as the Marshall Project has reported, very few do. Corrections officials in both states encourage prisoners to vote but rely on volunteers to register people. Incarcerated people are restricted from using the internet and often cut off from news sources. They cannot campaign for candidates or show signs of political partisanship. According to John Sughrue, the law librarian at Southern State Correctional Facility in Vermont, the biggest issue is the high illiteracy rate among the state’s prisoners. Even those who can read struggle to write, which makes registering to vote and filling out a ballot practically impossible without help. Some studies estimate that nationwide, nearly 60 percent of people in prison are illiterate. And, as Davis found, many are distrustful of government and feel there is no point in voting.
In Florida, fierce battles over felon enfranchisement have left potential voters confused about their right to vote, reports Kira Lerner for The Appeal. Voting rights advocates celebrated in 2018 when Amendment 4 passed overwhelmingly, which restored the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete their sentences, including parole or probation.
But last June, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill which requires people to pay off all court fines and fees associated with their sentences in order to be eligible to vote. One study estimated that roughly 80 percent of people with felony convictions in Florida still owe fines and fees and were affected by the legislation. Most owe between $500 and $5,000, and Black voters are more likely to have outstanding court debt. “After the law was signed, several voting rights organizations filed suit, and that litigation continues,” writes Lerner. “In February, a federal appeals court upheld a lower court’s preliminary injunction, finding that the state cannot prevent people from voting because of their inability to pay off their legal financial obligations, but the ruling only applied to the 17 named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. For the hundreds of thousands of others in a similar position across Florida, their status remains unclear.”
“It is a setup that the state has deliberately designed to cause confusion,” Daniel Tilley, legal director of the ACLU of Florida, told Lerner. “State officials are taking actions that they know will cause confusion and they intend those actions to cause people not to register.”
People unsure of their voting rights could understandably fear criminal prosecution if they vote. “Prosecutors have gone after other voters across the country, particularly African Americans, for voting when they were not eligible but were not aware of their crime,” writes Lerner. Tilley said he thinks that prosecution fear is “something that certain state officials want to capitalize on.”
“These are people who have, by definition, past experience with the criminal justice system,” he said. “I don’t think any of them are particularly eager to risk another felony conviction when the state is refusing to give the public guidance on who is eligible and who isn’t.”