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Christopher Uggen

University sociologist Christopher Uggen's new book, Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy,examines voting rights for felons.

Felons on the fringe

In a new book, sociologist Christopher Uggen argues that denying ex-cons the vote has implications for communities and elections

By Deane Morrison

March 7, 2006

If ex-felons could vote in Florida, Al Gore would almost certainly have become president in 2001. Such is the impact of state laws that restrict or deny voting rights to people convicted of felonies, says University sociologist Christopher Uggen. In a new book, Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, Uggen and co-author Jeff Manza of Northwestern University argue that Florida's lifetime denial of voting rights to ex-felons kept 600,000 people from the polls in 2000 and may well have swung the presidential election to George W. Bush. Even a turnout of only 10 percent could have turned the tide, say Uggen and Manza. All over the country, tougher sentences for lawbreakers are swelling the ranks of ex-prisoners who must reenter society stripped of their voting rights, says Uggen. In nine states, persons convicted of a felony lose their right of franchise for the rest of their lives, and the list expands to 14 if one includes states that deny the right for certain offenses or circumstances such as recidivism. Only two states--Maine and Vermont--allow felons to vote from prison. Many states distinguish between those who have completely paid their debt to society and those who still owe. Minnesota, for example, restores the franchise to felons only after they have completed their prison terms plus any parole or other special status, while other states allow probationers or parolees to vote. But, argues Uggen, more than two-thirds of felons are convicted of nonviolent crimes. The number of disenfranchised ex-felons is growing because of stiffer penalties for nonviolent crimes, not a spike in criminality. And, he says, the loss of voting rights is hurting the ability of people to reintegrate into society.

Uggen and Manza surveyed ex-cons and found that those who vote do better at re-integrating into society by such measures as holding jobs and paying taxes than those who don't vote.

"The big run-up in recent years has been in drug offenses," he says. "Felons have been portrayed as murderers, rapists and terrorists, but that's not the true picture. A related fact is that 75 percent of the people who can't vote because of a felony conviction aren't in prison--they're out in communities." As such people try to adjust to life on the ouside, they often find that it means outside society, not just outside prison, and the inability to vote can exacerbate the isolation. Uggen and Manza surveyed ex-cons and found that those who vote do better at re-integrating into society by such measures as holding jobs and paying taxes than those who don't vote. The researchers also used a national Harris Poll to find out what Americans thought about restoring voting rights. "Nationally, 80 percent of respondents thought people who have served all their time should vote," says Uggen. "For people on probation it was 67 percent, and for parole, 60 percent. But then we asked specifically about sex offenders, who are generally held in very low regard compared to other offenders, support for enfranchising them after they've served their time was 52 percent. That indicates to us that people really value the right to vote." Studies of criminology over the life course show that almost all ex-cons eventually leave their lives of crime, Uggen says. Even in the Mafia (a very small proportion of the criminal world), many people give it up and go straight. "Refusal to restore voting rights keeps people outsiders rather than stakeholders in democracy," Uggen says. "If we create a permanent criminal class, it just makes it harder to reintegrate into society." The strictest laws tend to be in Southern states, the researchers found. Many laws date to the Civil War and Reconstruction, Uggen says, and there is a close correlation between the likelihood of a state disenfranchising felons at any stage [in the corrective process] and the proportion of black people in prison in that state. Everywhere, the proportion of people of color in prison is higher than the proportion of whites. "In some states, an African American person is 10 times as likely as a white person to be in prison," says Uggen. "In Minnesota, there are slightly more whites in prison, but the rate is about 10 times higher for African Americans." The number of black people imprisoned in Minnesota is equivalent to 10 percent of the voting age population; for white people, the rate is about one percent, Uggen says. American Indians are also significantly overrepresented in Minnesota prisons, whereas in the Southwest, Latinos have high rates of incarceration. For ethnic groups with sufficient numbers to influence elections, the effects can be palpable. "Overrepresentation of African Americans in prison really dilutes the voting power of communities of color," Uggen says. Globally, the United States is virtually alone in disenfranchising people who have served their time. In South Africa and Canada, prisoners are allowed to vote, and in Germany, disenfranchisement is largely limited to people who have committed election-related crimes like bribery and illegal campaign contributions. But no other nation practices blanket disenfranchisement, says Uggen. "We tend to put 'law-abiding citizens' on one side of the street and 'criminals' on the other," he says. "But criminals are citizens. We need their labor, their participation in society, their taxes. But in states like Florida, it's 'one strike and you're out.'" Instead of erecting a wall between "us" and "them," Uggen would like to see voting laws overhauled to encourage those who have the potential to lead productive lives. Uggen and Manza's book will be published Friday (March 10) by Oxford University Press.