CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - OCT. 17: Cook County jail detainees check in before casting their votes after a polling place was opened in the facility for early voting on Oct. 17, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. It is the first time pretrial detainees in the jail will get the opportunity for early voting in a general election. (Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)

There is arguably no part of the American political process untouched by the country’s legacy of slavery and racism. Felony disenfranchisement, however, remains one of the starkest examples of how election outcomes have been shaped by anti-Blackness. In the early days of the U.S., most states had some form of disenfranchisement laws that stripped away the right to vote based on criminal convictions, but those laws were narrow and only applied to a select few offenses. It was only after the Civil War and the ratification of the 15th Amendment—which granted Black men the right to vote—that state governments expanded disenfranchisement laws to include all felonies. Legislatures sought to blunt the amendment’s impact while expanding the reach of an increasingly racially biased carceral system over Black communities. 

However, a growing wave of legislation, ballot initiatives, and constitutional amendments led by coalitions committed to vote restoration have successfully pushed for felon re-enfranchisement. Additionally, public opinion is shifting as discussions around the inequities in the criminal justice system and how marginalized communities have been harmed by mass incarceration have moved further into the mainstream. Polling from 2018 found a majority of Americans on both sides of the political aisle support restoring the right to vote for formerly incarcerated people with felony convictions. But a majority of Americans still do not support voting rights restoration for those currently incarcerated, signaling how strongly many still believe that disenfranchisement is a form of punishment that should coincide with a conviction. Notably, support for restoration of the vote for incarcerated people and those returning home is greater among groups most directly impacted by disenfranchisement—particularly Black Americans and younger people.   

As organizers and advocacy groups have championed policies to ensure voter enfranchisement both for those inside and those who’ve returned home, their implementation has not come without barriers. But once these barriers are addressed, policies have led to the deeper participation of formerly and currently incarcerated people in the political process, as well as increased their feelings of belonging and understanding that they too can play a meaningful role in shaping the future of their communities. Ultimately, those ripple effects illuminate the relationship between the personal and the political. 

Measuring the impact of voter re-enfranchisement

Perhaps the most stark example of how voter disenfranchisement has been used as a tool of white supremacy was Alabama’s Constitutional Convention. In 1901, convention president John Knox explicitly stated the convention’s goal was to “subvert the guarantees of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments without directly provoking a legal challenge.” Knox would go on to say, “If we should have white supremacy, we must establish it by law—not by force or fraud.” 

State delegates at this convention wrote into the Alabama constitution that anyone convicted of a felony of “moral turpitude” would have their right to vote stripped. Critically, “moral turpitude” was an incredibly broad criteria that could be manipulated to encompass any offenses that Black communities were targeted and criminalized for. Today, Black Americans are far and away the group most disproportionately impacted by voter disenfranchisement, with 1 in 16 Black Americans of voting age being barred from casting ballots—a rate almost four times higher than non-Black Americans.

If the roots of voter disenfranchisement lie in political desires to keep Black Americans from exercising their right to vote, then a critical way to measure the efficacy of recent enfranchisement policies is assessing how many people are now registering and making it out to the polls. While hostile state legislatures and gubernatorial offices have used their power and influence to thwart the successful implementation of enfranchisement legislation, some counties and states with recently passed policies have still observed noticeable shifts. 

This summer, in the Illinois Cook County’s June primary election, voters in the county’s jail turned out to cast their ballots at a rate higher than the city of Chicago as a whole. The successful primary was a culmination of years-long efforts by organizers who pushed for both same-day registration and the establishment of a polling place within the city’s county jail. In early 2020, those efforts resulted in the passage of Senate Bill 2090, which requires election authorities in Illinois counties with a population below 3 million to facilitate the vote-by-mail process for eligible voters in jail. In counties with a population over 3 million—such as Cook County—election authorities must establish a temporary polling place inside the county jail.  

Notably, while the legislation eases access to the ballot for those who would have otherwise been eligible to vote already, it does not newly enfranchise people, such as those who are sentenced to felony convictions. 

Keshia Morris Desir, the census and mass incarceration project manager at Common Cause, says that stories like these help disprove claims that formerly and currently incarcerated voters have low levels of engagement due to general apathy around the political process.

“People [who] are incarcerated care about their voting rights, and it kind of dispels the myth that those on the inside have other things to think about other than voting,” said Morris Desir. “It really shows the impact that voting while incarcerated can have.”

If the result of Chicago’s June primary stems from efforts to promote voting among those held before their trials—people who have retained their right to vote but are often unable to exercise it due to the structural barriers of pretrial detention—then the impact of policies that extend voting rights to those who have been convicted and are still serving their sentences stands to be even more profound. 

In 2020, Washington, D.C., became the third jurisdiction within the U.S. to pass legislation allowing all incarcerated residents—including those with felony convictions—to register and cast their ballots. Despite myriad obstacles in implementing the policy, such as logistical struggles with locating which federal prisons District residents are incarcerated in, the shift has yielded some remarkable outcomes, including the election of Joel Caston.

Joel Caston had been in prison for 26 years when he won the D.C.’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner election in June 2021, becoming the incumbent commissioner for D.C.’s 7th Ward. The 7th Ward includes the county jail where his incarcerated peers were able to cast ballots for him due to the 2020 Amendment that restored the right to vote for all incarcerated DC residents. Caston’s election made history as he became the first incarcerated American to win an election with votes from incarcerated peers. Earlier this year, Caston was released on parole, and in addition to reacclimating to society and reconnecting with loved ones, he’s also stated that lobbying for fuller enfranchisement for incarcerated people is one of his goals.

Caston is one of a handful of recently elected political officials who were also formerly incarcerated whose elections are helping to usher in platforms more explicitly supportive of prison reform, elevating issues related to mass incarceration to a higher political stage. In 2020, Tarra Simmons was elected to Washington’s state legislature after running as a “second chance” candidate focused on helping people with prison records find housing and jobs as well as reducing the state’s investment in incarceration and instead pouring more resources into mental health services. This year in New York, Eddie Gibbs won a seat as Assemblymember for the state’s 68th District and has actually folded his time being incarcerated as a young adult into his political story, crediting his time in prison with “turning his life around” and instilling in him a desire to alleviate poverty.

These victories demonstrate how expanding the right to vote can create cycles of opportunity: casting ballots within prisons and jails creates avenues for imprisoned voters to participate in the political process not just by voting, but by running for office as well. In doing so, the presence of these candidates on the ballot encourages more voters inside to register and ultimately vote. 

In reporting from ABC News about Caston’s victory, reporters spoke with Colie Lavar Long, a first time voter within D.C.’s jail who had been incarcerated for over two decades.

“I’ve been locked up 26 years on the fringes of existence,” said Long. “So when I actually put—checked that box, and they actually said that he won—this person I voted for—it reaffirmed that I’m worthy to be back in society.”

A rising influential voting bloc 

The passage of enfranchisement legislation and the election of formerly incarcerated candidates into office has been heartening for advocates and organizers. However, the relative newness of these successes means there are some caveats on what organizers might deduce about their overall effectiveness. 

According to research conducted by criminologists Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza in 2002, felon disenfranchisement was found to provide a small but clear advantage to Republican candidates in every presidential and senatorial election from 1972 to 2000. Further, the study’s analysis found that in the over 400 Senate elections conducted since 1978, seven outcomes may have been reversed if not for the disenfranchisement of formerly and currently incarcerated people with felony convictions. The thin margins in even more recent elections also highlights the important role that disenfranchisement efforts could play in shaping political outcomes. 

By analyzing data points including the race, gender, marital status, income, and labor force status of those convicted of felonies in different presidential years, the study authors found that these would-be voters would skew Democratic if able to cast their ballots. Those assessments were then weighted against likely turn out rates to measure the likelihood of them meaningfully swaying past election outcomes. For example, Uggen and Manza assert that even in the presidential race of 1972 with George McGovern, “comparatively unpopular Democratic candidate,” McGovern still would have garnered almost 70% of the vote from those with past felony convictions.

“If we think about the 2000 presidential election that was decided by 500 people in Florida blocking access to over 5 million people from being able to weigh in on a number of issues that affect their daily lives, [it] is not in line with what the majority of voters are supporting these days,” said Morris Desir.

In future elections, it seems candidates across the political spectrum would do well to recognize how disenfranchisement can skew certain elections in favor of Republican candidates and acknowledge rising public support for enfranchisement initiatives. More critically, campaigns could begin actively targeting formerly and currently incarcerated people as a meaningful voting block by crafting positions that reflect the specific priorities and concerns of those who’ve become entangled with the carceral system.

Morris Desir notes that it may be too early to assess how fervently candidates are targeting their outreach to this emerging voting block, but there are some efforts that seem to be doing so. She points to a candidate forum hosted this July in Michigan’s Genesee County jail as a prime example—during the town hall, candidates for the county’s mayoral race fielded questions from voters incarcerated in the jail. 

“I would love to see candidates just gathering inside or deciding to have forums inside prisons and jails,” Morris Desir said. “There are lots of opportunities for candidates to engage people on the inside because they are paying attention, and to the extent that they do have access, they do vote.”

Enfranchisement is essential to successful reintegration 

Beyond the ripple effect of voter enfranchisement on the political landscape of counties and states that commit to implementing voter restoration initiatives and policies, the most important is arguably the impact it could have on the lives of those who can newly exercise their right to vote. In the most practical ways, voting can lead to or at least indicate pathways that could prevent people from being caught in the web of the criminal legal system. 

Research has found strong correlations between voting and a reduced likelihood of recidivism—in an analysis of formerly incarcerated Minnesota voters from 1996, data shows that voters were half as likely to be rearrested as non voters. If recidivism is due in part to not being able to fully sustain one’s livelihood and fully integrate into the community by accessing key resources like housing and employment, then it would stand to reason that being barred from the vote would also be a barrier to full reintegration.

Enfranchisement matters in part because it allows people to voice their political opinions in a way that can create tangible change. But it also fulfills another critical function, as demonstrated by Long’s reaction to being able to vote for their incarcerated peer Caston, as well as Caston’s subsequent victory: it can also foster feelings of belonging and being valued. Advocates note that those feelings are held by newly enfranchised voters nationwide. 

Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, noted that many of the formerly incarcerated people recently rearrested throughout the state for registering to vote despite not being eligible have shared similar sentiments.

“When you talk to all the individuals that have shared their stories you see a similar pattern,” said Volz. “They loved [being able to vote]. People [said] ‘I never felt like I was a part of my own community until I voted. I was invisible to so many folks in my community, and then I got my voting card. And I thought I was eligible so I voted, and it felt great. I felt like a citizen in my own community.’” 

Tamar Sarai

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.