Victoria Shineman, U.S. News, November 7, 2018
The newly elected Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis opposed the measure called Amendment 4. But more than 64 percent of Florida voters voted in favor of the amendment – well above the 60 percent support that was needed for it to pass. This means that 1.5 million U.S. citizens in Florida automatically regained their right to vote, increasing the number of eligible voters in Florida by more than 10 percent overnight.
My research finds that when Virginia restored voting rights, ex-offenders became more trusting of government and the criminal justice system. These attitudes are known to make it easier for citizens to re-enter society after being released from prison and also decrease their tendency to commit additional crimes.
Florida Votes to Change its Felony Disenfranchisement Laws
These felon disenfranchisement laws vary between states. Most states automatically restore voting rights to people after they are released from prison, or after completion of parole or probation.
But Florida was the most strict. Before the November 2018 election, Florida was one of only four states that had no automatic process for restoring voting rights.
Under Florida’s old system, a citizen with a felony conviction could only have their voting rights restored by applying to the Executive Clemency Board — a four-member panel including both the governor and the attorney general. The clemency board was allowed to reject applications for any reason, and was known to ask applicants questions about their family, religion, and even traffic violations.
Under outgoing Gov. Rick Scott, the clemency board approved fewer than 2,000 restorations of voting rights over six years. They had a backlog of more than 10,000 applications.
Given these strict laws, more than 1.6 million voting-age citizens in Florida did not have the right to vote – including more than 1 out of every 5 black citizens statewide.
Though the newly elected DeSantis opposed Amendment 4, his Executive Clemency Board will no longer have power over voting rights for all people previously convicted of felonies. Instead, voting rights will now be automatically restored at the end of an individual’s probation period. This change applies to all felonies except for murder and sex crimes.
Citizens who were told whether their voting rights had been restored became more trusting of government and the criminal justice system compared to those who were not provided with this information. They also viewed the U.S. government as more fair and representative. And they became more trusting of the police and more willing to cooperate with law enforcement.
These trusting and pro-democratic attitudes are known to help citizens reintegrate into their communities upon release from prison.
Research suggests citizens returning from prison reintegrate more successfully if they are able to transition from an identity as a “criminal” to an identity of a “law-abiding citizen.”
Research on crime also suggests that people are more likely to obey laws when they believe those laws were created through a fair process. Individuals in my study who were informed about their voting rights also perceived the government as more fair and representative. Thus voting rights might make it easier for returning citizens to reintegrate into society, while also reducing the incentives to commit further crimes.
Lessons for Amendment 4
Policies regulating the voting rights of ex-offenders have historically been a partisan issue, with Democrats supporting voting rights and Republicans supporting voting restrictions. Though a recent study estimated that Amendment 4 was unlikely to provide a significant advantage to either party.
Part of what may explain why Amendment 4 passed is that it had strong bipartisan support. One argument that increases support among both sides is that restoring voting rights might decrease crime.
There are other studies that have found a relationship between voting rights and lower crime. But none of them have yet been able to test whether restoring voting rights causes crime to decrease as mine does.
My research provides the first causal evidence that restoring voting rights causes ex-offenders to develop the very attitudes and behaviors that make them more likely to successfully reintegrate into society and avoid returning to crime and prison.