Should the voting rights of ex-felons be restored?

Published 3:48 pm Friday, October 25, 2019

A year ago, the Sunshine State stunned the country as Floridians voted to bring back the voting rights of ex-felons, by a 2:1 margin. States like Georgia are looking to join Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, California, Louisiana and Maryland have already taken steps to reestablish the voting rights of these former felons, while others seek to oppose such changes.

My students have been gathering data on this subject as part of a class project that will be presented before the Georgia State Senate here at LaGrange College, an opportunity of a lifetime for these hardworking undergraduate students, who have compiled a 35-page report and a dataset teaming with variables to answer questions about states that support giving those rights back to ex-felons, and those that don’t.

Believe it or not, the reestablishment of voting rights for former felons won’t lead to an increase in crime rates. 

In fact, we found that states that restore those ex-felon voting rates are correlated with lower crime rates, though it’s by a slim margin. 

Moreover, states that let ex-felons vote upon release are also slightly less likely to have documented cases of voter fraud. 

Maybe making these ex-cons feel part of the system again will make them appreciate that new-found freedom more.

Other fears associated with crime concerns are unfounded among the 16 states (and DC) who have restored those voting rights. 

They are no more likely to have higher recidivism rates, or additional voting barriers, or shorter background checks, or state-level corruption, than the 34 states which either keep ex-felons from ever voting again, or make them jump through the hoops of parole, probation, additional waiting periods and reapplication for rights to get the vote back.

Politics does play a role in the process. 

States with more conservatives, with more Republican voters, and more people who see themselves as religious are more likely to take steps to make it harder for former felons to vote. 

For these states, it’s more about punitive measures than rehabilitation strategies.

Not all states have enough ex-felons to tip the scales (only five of 50 do), but in a close election like 2016, it might matter, assuming all vote one way. 

We don’t know how Floridians voted, but evidence from a St. Pete poll in 2018 shows that majorities of young and old people, men and women, blacks, whites and Hispanics and Democrats all backed the ballot initiative on giving ex-felons their voting rights back. 

Only Republicans and Asian-Americans didn’t give 55 percent plus of the vote for this bill, and it easily passed.

Plenty of groups are expected to testify at this special State Senate Study Committee at LaGrange College, with groups like the ACLU and the Peach State’s Secretary of State office weighing in. 

Along with them will be my students: from student government senators and athletes to nontraditional students and even a former soldier who served in Afghanistan. 

Rather than memorize from textbooks, or reenact the political debates of CNN and Fox, they’re conducting high level research on a subject for the senators, sharing what they learned with the community. 

And that experience will help take them to the next level, whatever that might be.