the insidious impact of felon disenfranchisement

Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen (2006) estimated that 5.3 million citizens were ineligible to vote on Election Day in 2004 because of felony convictions. This number had increased rapidly since 1980, mainly because of rapid growth in felony convictions. About one quarter of the felony-disenfranchised in 2004 were incarcerated; the rest had formerly been imprisoned but were now living in communities. A disproportionate number were African American men; in fact, five states had disqualified more than 20 percent of their Black populations (pp. 76-79).

Several studies find that these laws depress the turnout of people who were never convicted of felonies, especially African Americans, in part by reducing the amount of election-related activity in their communities (McLeod, White & Gavin 2003; Bowers, M., & Preuhs, 2009).

These are the results of policy choices, which vary widely. Maine and Vermont have no felony disenfranchisement provisions, but “possession of an ounce of marijuana can result in lifetime disenfranchisement in Florida” (Manza and Uggen, 2006, p. 9). ( has a list of the states where you get your right to vote back, because people with criminal convictions in their past shouldn’t refrain from voting out of a misunderstanding.)

Voting is a pro-social act. You don’t get want you want by voting (because too many other people also participate), but you do get to say what you think is best for the community. Ex-felons who choose to vote are surely taking a step toward rehabilitation. Blocking them from voting not only deprives them of a fundamental right but may also discourage them from becoming constructive members of their communities.


  • Bowers, M., & Preuhs, R. R. (2009). Collateral consequences of a collateral penalty: The negative effect of felon disenfranchisement laws on the political participation of nonfelons, Social Science Quarterly, 90(3), 722-743.
  • Manza, J., & Uggen, C. (2006). Locked out: felon disenfranchisement and American democracy: Oxford U Press.
  • McLeod, A., White, I. K., & Gavin, A. R. (2003). The locked ballot box: The impact of state criminal disenfranchisement law on african american voting behavior and implications for reform. Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law, 11, 66-88.
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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.