Restoring Felons' Voting Rights Probably Won't Turn Florida Blue

An analysis by a University of Pennsylvania political science professor and Harvard PhD candidate says restoring felons' voting rights is unlikely to create a surge of Democratic voters.
An analysis by a University of Pennsylvania political science professor and Harvard PhD candidate says restoring felons' voting rights is unlikely to create a surge of Democratic voters. Photo by Stephen Velasco / Flickr
A frequently cited study from 2002 says if Florida had allowed felons to vote, Al Gore might have defeated George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election.

At the time, 827,000 people in Florida had lost the right to vote due to felony convictions. The study's authors theorized that nearly 70 percent would have voted as Democrats, thus potentially changing the course of history.

"One state — Florida — held the balance of power," the authors concluded. "If disenfranchised felons in Florida had been permitted to vote, Democrat Gore would certainly have carried the state, and the election."

But according to new research, that conventional wisdom might not be true. Despite Tuesday's historic vote, where about 65 percent of Floridians approved Amendment 4 to restore voting rights to most felons, two leading academics say the reversal is unlikely to create a surge of new Democratic voters. That's not only because ex-felons aren't reliably liberal, but also because their voter turnout tends to be extremely low.

An analysis by Marc Meredith, a University of Pennsylvania political science professor; and Michael Morse, a Harvard PhD candidate, for Vox used Florida data from 2007 to 2011 to prove the point. During those four years, policies enacted by then-Gov. Charlie Crist automatically restored voting rights for nearly 150,000 former felons. Studying that group, the researchers found that only a small percentage turned out to the polls for elections — just 16 percent of black ex-felons and 12 percent of nonblack ex-felons. (The authors say they were unable to separate white, Hispanic, Asian, and other voters into groups.)

The researchers found that black ex-felons registered as Democrats 87 percent of the time. But only about a quarter of Florida's overall felon population is black. For nonblack former felons, the majority — 40 percent — became registered Republicans. Only 34 percent registered as Democrats, while the remaining 26 percent claimed no affiliation with either party.

Given this information, Meredith and Morse say there's no reason to believe Hillary Clinton would have won Florida in the 2016 presidential election if the state's felons had been allowed to vote.

"Florida’s Democrats would stand to gain some votes by extending the franchise, but the net gain of 48,000 votes is only about one-quarter of 1 percent of the more than 15 million people of voting age in Florida," the authors wrote. "Such evidence cannot support the stronger claim that Trump would have lost the state in 2016 but for criminal disenfranchisement."

Before Tuesday's vote, nearly 1.5 million Floridians were disenfranchised on the basis of a felony conviction. Florida's harsh, lifetime ban on voting rights, which racist lawmakers approved during the Jim Crow era, meant that more than one in five black adults had been permanently blocked from casting a ballot.

For the past several years, Miami's Desmond Meade has been one of the driving forces behind the rights-restoration movement. After becoming homeless and addicted to crack, Meade was convicted of three felonies before getting clean and graduating from law school. But with his criminal record, he has been unable to practice law or even vote for his wife, who ran for the Florida House in 2016.

Tuesday night, he celebrated the passage of Amendment 4 as a victory for all Floridians.

"We showed that every ballot cast was a ballot cast with love," Meade told the Orlando Sentinel. "We showed what can happen when we come together along the lines of humanity and reach each other where we’re at. That’s what happens when we transcend partisan lines and bickering, when we transcend racial anxieties, and when we come together as God’s children. That’s what happens."

For many voters, the ballot item was a no-brainer. Fifty-seven-year-old Zinovy Nudel said he would have supported rights restoration years ago, but it wasn't on the ballot.

"People should be able to pay their dues and be able to become full citizens, so to speak," he told New Times outside his Miami Beach polling place Tuesday. "It’s the right thing to do.”
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Jessica Lipscomb is news editor of Miami New Times and an enthusiastic Florida Woman. Born and raised in Orlando, she has been a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
Contact: Jessica Lipscomb