The Ripple Effect

Confusion over felon voting bans keeps even the eligible from the polls


What's the point of giving ex-cons the right to vote, since they don't vote anyway? It's one of those questions one often hears in conversations about voting rights—and it functions as a pat explanation for why one need not worry too much about this issue. But is it true that ex-cons don't vote? Ernest Drucker, an epidemiologist at Montefiore Medical Center, tried to find out.

In recent months, he and several colleagues interviewed current and former prisoners in Ohio, New York, and Connecticut. They found that, contrary to widespread assumptions, these people registered and voted at rates comparable to the general population prior to going to prison.

Jeffrey Blackman registering voters at West 140th Street and Broadway: "I won't be able to vote until the year 2007, but you can exercise that right."
photo: Cary Conover
Jeffrey Blackman registering voters at West 140th Street and Broadway: "I won't be able to vote until the year 2007, but you can exercise that right."

There is a difference in voting patterns, however, after these individuals regain their voting rights. At this point, the researchers found a 36 percent decline in registration rates. Misinformation about the laws seems to explain this drop. In Connecticut, when ex-prisoners who were eligible to vote were asked if they had this right, 57 percent said "No" or "I don't know." —J.G.

During negotiations, a lawyer working for Ohio's attorney general said the parole agency would be willing to notify the state's 30,000 parolees about their voting rights by posting notices in parole offices. To David Singleton, the lawyer who drafted the lawsuit, this verbal commitment seemed like a victory. But in fact, the state's parole agency did not follow through on this promise. Legal negotiations continued, but soon the matter became moot; the deadline for voter registration passed on October 4.

One local board of elections did actually send out letters to ex-prisoners, but this letter only added to the confusion. "We have recently received notification that your voter registration must be cancelled for the following reason: The voter has been convicted of a felon," stated the letter, which dropped the y from felony. "If you feel that our records are in error, please contact this office as soon as possible." The letter, sent out by the Summit County Board of Elections, which covers Akron, did not inform the recipient that he could re-register and vote.

On September 21, Molly Wieser, an Ohio activist, marched into the Summit County Board of Elections, accompanied by several ex-prisoners from New York City who had come to the state to register voters. The officials they met with offered to amend the letter, but, according to Wieser, they did not seem to consider the matter urgent. "They're not deeply unpleasant people," says Wieser, who runs a prisoners' rights group in Cleveland called the Racial Fairness Project. "They just are not too concerned about doing anything quickly to remedy an issue they don't consider to be an emergency."

Wieser contacted Singleton, and he filed another lawsuit. On September 28, a federal judge ordered the Summit County Board of Elections to send out another letter, informing ex-inmates that they were in fact eligible to vote. The letter went out to 1902 people. Even a seemingly small act like sending out a second, clearer letter can make a difference in a close election. Few people have forgotten that in 2000 George W. Bush won Florida by only 537 votes.

The number of words being written on the subject of felony disenfranchisement—in newspaper articles, statewide surveys, lawsuits, advocacy group reports, scholarly articles—has grown rapidly in recent months as the presidential election nears. One of the most interesting contributions to this literature was a 22-page article in the Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law, published by the University of Virginia School of Law. The article analyzed the ripple effect of felon voting laws—not just on people who've been convicted of a felony, but on their neighbors, friends, and family members, too.

The authors found that the probability of voting was equal among blacks and whites who were eligible to vote and who lived in states with the least restrictive felony disenfranchisement laws. But in states with the most restrictive laws, there was a notable difference: Participation among eligible blacks dropped by about 8 percent. The article contends that this discovery shows "the damage that criminal disenfranchisement laws . . . have on social networks and their ability to encourage non-disenfranchised individuals to exercise their right to vote."

These findings did not surprise Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, who has written numerous reports on felon voting rights. "Voting is sort of this communal experience," he says. "Husbands and wives go to the polls together. Neighbors talk about it and go out and do it together. So if you have fewer people who are eligible to participate, then you have less discussion and activity around it. It would make sense that it would depress overall turnout."

Jeffrey Blackman was one of the ex-prisoners from New York who marched into the Summit County Board of Elections in Ohio in late September. The executive director of the Fortune Society, a Manhattan nonprofit that helps ex-prisoners, had taken him and 10 other people to Ohio to register voters. Once they got back, Blackman and other Fortune Society clients took to the streets, trying to sign up voters in West Harlem.

Blackman grew up on West 126th Street, and he says his parents were civil rights activists who always voted. By making the trip to Ohio, and then signing up voters on the sidewalks of Harlem, Blackman is continuing their work—and fighting to stop a culture of nonvoting from taking root in neighborhoods like this one. On a recent afternoon, he glanced down at his clipboard and reviewed the voter registration cards he'd collected. "Like my father said, if you want to be heard, voting is the way," he said.

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