If Convicted Felons Could Vote…

…They might decide the presidential election. A new report says a record 5.85 million felons are disenfranchised, twice the number some say the election could come down to. Eliza Shapiro reports

Reed Saxon / AP Photo

A record 5.85 million convicted felons aren’t allowed to vote, according to a report out today (PDF) by The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice research and advocacy group. That’s about 500,000 more than were disenfranchised in 2004—and potentially enough to decide this year’s tightly-contested presidential election.

By some estimates, the election could be decided by a margin of roughly two points, or a mere 2.5 million people. The disenfranchised felon voting block is “absolutely enough” to swing an election, says Sasha Abramsky, author of Conned: How Millions Went to Prison, Lost the Vote and Helped Send George W. Bush to the White House.

Consider the case of the hanging chads and butterfly ballots in Florida in 2000. Florida’s laws preventing convicted felons from voting meant that some 750,000 people, including those still in prison, on probation or parole, didn’t get a say in who would be president. Since the election was decided by 537 votes, Abramsky estimates that if just 1% of the disenfranchised felon population had voted, 60% to 40% for Al Gore over George W. Bush, Gore would have won. These are conservative estimates, considering the limited research on voting habits of former and current felons has shown that they swing Democratic. Still, “no one wants to gun for the felon vote,” Abramsky says.

The latest numbers on felon disenfranchisement are a crucial piece of a larger debate over voting rights this election cycle. Laws restricting voting are making headlines for the first time in years as states like Florida and Pennsylvania adopt tougher voter identification laws. Voting rights advocates are calling the moves “voting purges” designed to benefit Republican candidates because the bulk of people who would be effectively disenfranchised are Democrat-leaning African-Americans and Latinos. Last month, Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai said that the state’s new voter ID laws are “gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

Laws that keep felons and others away from the polls “have their roots in Jim Crow laws, and were passed along with relics like literacy tests and poll taxes,” says Lee Rowland, counsel for the NYU Brennan Center for Justice Democracy Program. This week, Eric Holder called Texas’ new voter ID law, which requires people to show an ID every time they vote, rather than do a one-time registration, a “poll tax” in an address at the NAACP national convention.

Statistics show that felon disenfranchisement disproportionately affect African-Americans, with 7.7% of the total African-American population denied the vote as a result, according to the Sentencing Project. That’s 1 out of every 13 black Americans. Rowland says stricter felon disenfranchisement laws are often made as a “political calculations” that “skew the electorate.”

Four million of the 5.85 million disenfranchised are currently out of prison, some on probation and parole. “The murderer behind bars,” waiting to cast his vote, “is an atypical case,” says Christopher Uggen, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and lead author of the Sentencing Project report. The group’s director, Marc Mauer, estimates that half of the convicted felons in prison are serving time for a violent offense and the other half for a property or drug crime.

Felon disenfranchisement varies widely between states. On one end of the spectrum, Maine and Vermont don’t link voting rights to criminal records. On the other end, Iowa, Florida, Virginia and Kentucky have laws permanently disenfranchising anyone who has been convicted of a felony unless approved on an individual basis by the state government. After the 2010 interim elections, Florida and Iowa’s newly elected Republican Governors, Rick Scott and Terry E. Branstad, toughened felon disenfranchisement laws within their first years in office. Scott reversed former Florida governor Charlie Christ’s 2007 procedures restoring voting rights to ex-felons and instituted a minimum five-year waiting law before former felons can begin the process of regaining their vote in Florida.

The report shows that in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Virginia and Tennessee, over 7% of the adult population is disenfranchised. In Florida, Kentucky and Virginia, more than one in five African-Americans is disenfranchised.

Ex-felons returning from prison struggle to re-enter society when they are stripped of their rights, says Ann Jacobs, the director of John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Prisoner Reentry Institute. “Felony convictions become a life sentence. ‘If you do the crime, you do the time’ is misleading ... an ex-felon is forever running into these barriers about voting, housing, and employment that in many cases relate to the worst thing they ever did at some point prior in their lives.”

Former felons who have struggled to regain their voting privileges said the process is exhausting and demoralizing. Desmond Meade, a second-year law student at Florida International University College of Law, another ex-felon, says he has been applying for his voting rights—unsuccessfully—since 2006. Even as a law student, he cannot sit for the Florida bar exam.

Pastor Kenneth Glasgow spent fourteen years in an Alabama prison for the possession and sale of crack cocaine. He became a pastor when he was released from prison in 2001. He says he spent three years trying to regain his voting rights. He studied the Alabama State Constitution and cited clauses that possessio—rather than sale—of an illegal substance doesn’t legally result in the loss of the vote. When he finally got the vote in 2004, he tied a string around his voter registration card and wore it around his neck.