Do Felons Vote Democrat? Why Bernie Sanders' Idea to Let Felons Vote Probably Wouldn't Change Election Results

felons, vote, democrat, bernie sanders
Voters cast their ballots at the polling place in the Father Thomas A. Bernas Parish Center in Chicago, on April 2, 2019. Bernie Sanders says he believes all felons should have the right to vote. KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Senator Bernie Sanders doubled down this week on his belief that felons—both those who have completed their sentences and those still in prison—should have the right to vote. Within hours of his Monday night comments, the Republican National Committee had sent out an email to supporters attacking the 2020 Democratic candidate's position.

The furor turned the spotlight onto a long-held assumption that felons, if given the chance, would vote Democrat. Back in 2003, Alabama GOP chair Marty Connors even explained his party's position bluntly: "As frank as I can be, we're opposed to it because felons don't vote Republican."

But is that really the case? Well, yes, and no.

"I think it really depends on the state you're talking about. Felons or ex-felons are much like Americans more broadly, they vote differently based on their racial or ethnic backgrounds," Marc Meredith, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, told Newsweek. "In states where the ex-felon or felon population is more African American there is probably going to be a slightly greater Democratic bent to the group just because of the demographic nature of the population. And in places where the ex-felon population is mostly white you'll see much less of a partisan difference in how that population votes.

"I do think, on average, that Democrats would get more votes than Republicans if we nationwide all of a sudden got rid of felon disenfranchisement," he added, but cautioned that the effect is often vastly overestimated.

An influential 2002 study found that 73 percent of felons and ex-felons would vote Democrat and, if they had been able to vote in 2000, they would have decisively carried Al Gore to victory in Florida and to the White House.

In the years since, however, such research has been criticized for vastly overestimating voter turnout. While felons and ex-felons may be less likely to vote Republican, the bigger trend is they are overwhelmingly less likely to vote at all.

Meredith, and colleague Michael Morse, have looked at felon and ex-felon populations in numerous states—New York, New Mexico, North Carolina, Iowa, Rhode Island and Maine—and did find significantly higher numbers of registered Democrats. One of the biggest gaps was in New York (61 percent Democrat to 9 percent Republican), but turnout was low in all states over several elections. In 2008, New York ex-felon turnout dropped to 3.5 percent—10 times lower than the estimated turnout used in the 2002 study.

So while mass incarceration tends to hurt the Democratic Party more, it's far from certain that these individuals if given the chance would vote at all, let alone for Democrats.

Even in Maine—one of two states, along with Vermont, where felons in prison never lose the right to vote—turnout remains low. This indicates that factors related to being convicted of a crime, such as being young and less educated, may contribute to lower political engagement, separate to the issue of being allowed to vote.

"The most defining feature of ex-felon voters or ex-felons in a political sense is not that they're Democrat or Republicans but they tend to be just overall less engaged in politics than demographically similar non-felons," Meredith said. "So if we're going to make one, broad statement about this group it's probably not that they're Democratic or more Republican, it's that they're less politically engaged."

Tilman Klumpp, an economist at the University of Alberta who has looked at voting patterns, agrees. "That's kind of a believable explanation because there's a lot of stuff going on in an ex-felon's life that might be of more direct consequence and of more importance than going to vote. So it's not completely inconceivable that only very few ex-felons, if given the right to vote, would actually go and vote," he said.

In another study about the 2016 Florida election, Meredith and Morse found nonblack ex-felon voters were mostly registered Republicans (40 percent, with the rest split between Democrats and unaffiliated voters) while black ex-felon voters were overwhelmingly registered Democrats (87 percent). Yet turnout didn't exceed 16 percent for either group. Because of turnout rates, they estimated that if all ex-felons had the right to vote Democrats would have gained 48,000 votes, which is around 0.25 percent of the voting age population—not nearly enough to swing the state.

The potential for the ex-felon vote to swing any state is "very unlikely," according to Meredith. He added, however, that a number of seemingly obscure factors could decide an election as close as the 2018 Florida Senate race, which was decided by just 10,000 ballots.

"Any host of things could tip an election as close as the Florida Senate election last time. Whether it was warm or cold on the day, whether it was raining, the weather, or the ballot decision could have been pivotal there. Any time you get an election that's that close, there's things that could potentially swing it," he said. "But I think we would be talking about elections that are that close before we'd really be thinking that would really be pivotal in determining who won a race."

Klumpp, working with economist Hugo Mialon of Emory University and Michael Williams of Competition Economics, also found that including ex-felon voters would have a rather small, if not negligible, effect. When he and his colleagues retroactively applied new re-enfranchisement laws to 14 years of U.S. House of Representative elections, the results were that Democrats would have gained a slight, but statistically nonsignificant number of voters, even using a high turnout rate. Further, even if all ex-felons had the right to vote, the House majority would never have swung to the other party.

"Even if they voted overwhelmingly Democratic, which again is something that has been the past. But even assuming that, because there could be a rather low number of ex-felons voting it just doesn't make a big difference," Klumpp told Newsweek.

In looking at the assumption that felons and ex-felons naturally and actively vote for Democrats, there are two final issues to consider.

First, each state has dramatically different prison, and therefore felon, populations. The ability for swathes of felons and ex-felons to impact an election en masse depends on their numbers. In 2016, the combined felon population of Vermont and Maine was 4,149, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. In Florida, that number is nearly 100,000.

Secondly, disenfranchisement affects the Democratic Party far more because of the huge disproportionate impact on minority voters who are historically Democratic voters. But it's important to remember that the number of white and African American people in prison is actually quite similar (though, overall, there are far more minorities incarcerated).

"I do think people have a misunderstanding of who the ex-felon population is in the U.S.," Meredith said. "While it is disproportionately African American, I think a lot of people think it is a majority African American or almost entirely African American, which is not the case. I do think some people probably assume some things about how ex-felons would vote based on incorrect assumptions in their mind about who this population is."

Earlier this month, White House adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner claimed, without evidence, more ex-felons who have been given the right to vote are registering in Florida as Republicans than Democrats. To date, Politifact has not been able to verify that claim.

While most major 2020 Democratic candidates agree ex-felons should have the right to vote returned to them post-sentence, the incarcerated vote remains a grey issue. This week, Senator Elizabeth Warren told reporters, "I'm not there yet," and Senator Kamala Harris initially said there should be a "conversation," but walked back her comments less than a day later. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has disagreed openly with Sanders and said that loss of voting rights in prison is "part of the punishment."

For now, Vermont and Maine look set to remain the only states that allow felons in prison to vote, despite Sanders' desire for prisoner re-enfranchisement. And if that were to change, voter tallies may shift but the end results are likely to stay the same.

"I honestly do not know what would happen," Klumpp said. "There is the uncertainty of how many would vote and how they would vote. Again you could say, If the prison population is majority African American and then you look at the nonprison, nonfelony African American population and see in large numbers they vote for Democrats, it's a rather big step to go from that observation to a statement that the African Americans in prison would vote in the same way."

Or, vote at all.