Repeal of Florida felon ban didn't increase voter turnout in most-impacted communities

May 8, 2021

An amendment to restore voting rights to felons in Florida didn't affect turnout in areas where it would have had the most effect. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Florida's 2018 ballot initiative that returned voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals did not increase voter turnout for individuals living with or near formerly incarcerated Floridians in 2018, according to a new study that demonstrates much work is yet to be done to reach communities that were disenfranchised by Florida's practices. 

The study, published April 20 in American Political Science Review, found that neighborhoods with more formerly incarcerated residents were not associated with higher voter turnout in Florida's 2018 election relative to similar neighborhoods, indicating that the initiative, known as Amendment Four, failed to mobilize eligible voters whose communities have been politically disenfranchised due to high levels of incarceration.

Prior to 2018, Floridians convicted of felony offenses were permanently ineligible to vote, even after they had served their time in prison. The only way these voters could win back their right to vote was by applying for and receiving an individual pardon from the state's clemency board. 

In Rick Scott's eight-year tenure as governor of Florida, fewer than 3,000 people were given this pardon, a fraction of the 390,000 individuals convicted of a felony who have been released from prison since October 1997, according to the study. 

The clemency process was "characterized by a low success rate, cumbersome process, and lengthy amount of time," the study noted, with a backlog of nearly 10,000 at the time Amendment Four was passed — a waiting line that stretched as far back as a decade.

In conducting this research, Kevin Morris, author of the paper and a researcher at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, noticed a pattern about these disenfranchised individuals and those who lived closest to them. Formerly incarcerated individuals were concentrated in neighborhoods with lower incomes and higher levels of unemployment and where a much larger share of the population is Black.

Amendment Four, which amended the state constitution to end felony disenfranchisement, passed with 64.5% of voter support, which Morris said indicated broad bipartisan approval, considering Ron DeSantis won Florida's hotly contested 2018 gubernatorial race with just 49.6% of the vote. Amendment Four reenfranchised individuals with felony convictions by restoring their voting rights after the completion of all terms of their sentencing, including parole and probation. 

"For a long time, Florida disenfranchised 1.5 million people," Morris told The Academic Times, "and it was kind of this black eye in terms of the number of people that were disenfranchised — more than any other state in the country."

The "chilling effects" of a loved one's incarceration on voting is well studied in criminological research, with exposure to the carceral state decreasing political involvement "even among individuals who are not convicted … [leaving] would-be voters without a criminal record feeling as though political involvement is not for 'people like me,' often despite having considerable political knowledge," Morris wrote. 

Morris also noted that a growing body of quantitative research finds "spillover" effects of mass incarceration, showing that "neighborhoods with high levels of incarceration and disenfranchisement vote at markedly lower rates than other similar neighborhoods."

"There's a lot of research that shows that contact with the criminal legal system reduces people's willingness to engage with the government for all sorts of really understandable reasons," Morris said. "If the government treats you like you don't matter … it's understandable that you would then react by saying, 'I don't want any part of this.'"

Although Amendment Four ultimately passed with broad support, a question remained on whether the opportunity to vote on Amendment Four mobilized eligible voters who were close in proximity to formerly incarcerated individuals — those whose communities have been most affected by mass incarceration, leading to the disenfranchisement of their community. 

Morris used data from the Florida Department of Corrections' Offender Based Information System, which, after completing a geocoding process, yielded 286,000 individuals who had finished their sentence as of the 2018 midterms and were released to a Florida address. He used this data in connection with Florida voter file data from the data vendor L2 Political to identify registered voters who lived with or near formerly incarcerated individuals. L2 Political provided Morris with publicly available information on individuals, including home address, age, gender, participation history in voting and political affiliation.

Morris's research found that voters living in neighborhoods with many formerly incarcerated residents did not turn out at rates higher than those of residents in similar neighborhoods, even though Amendment Four was on the ballot. And these communities already experience lower voter turnouts: Precincts with zero formerly incarcerated residents experience over 66% turnout, while precincts with 300 formerly incarcerated residents have under 61% voter turnout, according to the study. 

Moreover, Morris found that turnout in 2018 wasn't higher for voters in closest contact with formerly incarcerated individuals relative to other voters. In fact, although 2018 had some of the highest levels of voter turnout in years, eligible voters who lived at an address reported to also be that of a formerly incarcerated individual had lower voter turnout than they had in previous years, by 2.2 percentage points. 

But Morris noted a positive finding: The spillover and chilling effects of incarceration on voting seem to go away slowly but surely. There was a higher turnout for voters whose family members had been out of prison for a longer time relative to people whose family members had been to prison more recently. It was a very small effect, Morris said, but the models seem to indicate that as incarceration recedes into the past, its negative political effects do weaken.

Although Amendment Four did not result in increased turnout among the most-impacted voters in 2018, Morris said that getting rid of this legal barrier was of paramount importance, and it might increase turnout in the future, specifically for those individuals who have now regained their right to vote. 

"This didn't disproportionately increase the turnout of folks in closest contact, which means that there's going to need to be so much more work to reincorporate these communities to the body politic," Morris said. "It means that, yes, ending felony disenfranchisement needs to happen, but it is only one of many things that need to happen to actually reincorporate these communities because of how long and how fully they've been marginalized by our political system."

The study "Turnout and Amendment Four: Mobilizing eligible voters close to formerly incarcerated Floridians," published April 20 in American Political Science Review, was authored by Kevin Morris, Brennan Center for Justice. 

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