GOP’s Objection to Vote for Felons Imperils Its Own Supporters

Republicans who oppose a movement to let felons vote after they leave prison are fighting a policy idea that could earn them a large number of new voters.

Republicans in the Senate last week united to block an omnibus Democratic elections bill that included a provision to restore felon voting rights nationwide with many objecting to that requirement specifically.

Yet like the prison population, ex-felons are overwhelmingly male and non-college educated and largely White, three demographic groups that increasingly vote Republican.

Voting rights have been the subject of intense debate and legislative maneuvers in recent months after high turnout and relaxed restrictions during the 2020 election became ammunition in former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen from him via massive fraud.

And the Supreme Court is set to rule in the coming days on a case out of Arizona that could alter voting rights on the federal level.

Former felons were first prohibited from voting in the Reconstruction era to limit political participation by Black people and it’s been seen as a civil rights issue in modern times. While a broad movement to restore rights began in recent decades, it has since accelerated. Largely pushed by Democrats and advocates, restrictions have been rolled back via legislation, ballot measures and executive orders in 14 states since 2016.

Republican elected officials have repeatedly come out against the proposals, in some cases limiting or even reversing them.

Senator Todd Young, an Indiana Republican, highlighted the provision in explaining his opposition to the Democrats’ voting rights bill, even though his home state of Indiana automatically restores voting rights when inmates leave prison.

In Florida, after nearly two-thirds of voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow former inmates to vote once they are off parole, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that required them to pay off any fines or fees as well, which substantially undercut the reform.

Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, was candid about the reason for his opposition when he claimed in 2015 that “convicted felons tend to vote Democrat.”

Yet the data doesn’t support that assumption.

Men, who backed former President Donald Trump by 8 points in 2020, make up 93% of state and federal inmates across the country, according to a 2020 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Nationally, about a third of state and federal inmates are White, a demographic that backed Trump by 17 points in 2020, compared to a third Black and about a quarter Hispanic.

And a 2008 survey of former inmates found that 97% did not have a college degree, a demographic that supported Trump by 6 points in 2016 and 2 points in 2020.

Support for Trump

While African Americans are overrepresented in the U.S. prison system, they are still a minority of prisoners in many states. In the battleground states of Arizona and Wisconsin, there are more White inmates than any other racial group, while in Pennsylvania the number of White and Black inmates is about equal.

In a first-of-its-kind survey of more than 8,000 inmates in December 2019, the Marshall Project found that 45% of White respondents would have voted for Trump, only a few percentage points below his job approval rating among White voters outside of prison in other surveys taken at the same time.

Republican pollster Patrick Ruffini said that he’s not sure if either party would gain an advantage from restoring voting rights to felons, but he worried that Republican opposition may end up undercutting recent GOP outreach to Black voters concerned about the justice system.

“Republicans have made a lot of strides on criminal justice reform, and we are undermining that,” he said. “We are just starting to break the Democratic stranglehold on Black voters, and we should steer clear of anything that could jeopardize that.”

Nationally, the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform, estimated last year that more than 5.2 million Americans can’t vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws. In states like Kentucky, the group estimates that more than one in 10 otherwise eligible voters are barred.

Stephen Nodine, a former local Republican official and strategist who began advocating for so-called “second-chance voters” after serving time himself, said that people in that category include a lot more Republicans than many people in his party seem to realize. And he worried the GOP might be turning them off with its opposition.

“Why do we not fight for their votes?” he said.

Not all Republican officials are opposed to former felons voting.

Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, last August signed an executive order restoring voting rights for inmates who have completed their sentences, saying it was “a significant step forward in acknowledging the importance of redemption.”

But even if the laws were changed, the number of new voters might be relatively small. Another report from the Marshall Project, a recent analysis of voter rolls, found that no more than one in four former felons who were newly eligible to vote in Iowa, Kentucky, Nevada and New Jersey signed up before the 2020 election.

Ariel White, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies voting, said that any partisan advantage due to demographics could end up being offset by low turnout.

Even in states where felons automatically have their rights restored after leaving prison, they still have to register to vote and show up at the polls, two things that may not be top concerns as they search for housing and employment, she said.

Some advocates say candidates should court ex-felons as potential supporters, something that both Democratic and Republican campaigns have shied away from.

Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, voted in the 2020 Republican primary after losing his voting rights for 16 years because of a felony conviction.

He said that while he’d “run through a brick wall” to vote, candidates have to earn his support by fighting for issues that affect his community.

“We worked too long and too hard to get the right to vote back to just give it to a political party,” he said. “We want people to earn our votes, just like everyone else.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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