Felony Status, Participation, and Political Reintegration in the United States
In the United States, nearly all individuals lose the right to vote while incarcerated, and even after voting rights are restored upon release voting rates among former felons remain low. Researchers evaluated the impact of mailings that informed ex-felons of their eligibility to vote on political participation. The mailing increased political participation, particularly among former felons that were active voters prior to incarceration.
In the United States, nearly all felons lose the right to vote while incarcerated. After release, the vast majority of states reinstate voting rights, but registration and voting rates among former felons remain low. One reason for this may be that former felons may not know that their right to vote is restored upon their release. Or, felons may fail to re-register to vote due to the time and effort registration requires. Additionally, after incarceration they might feel stigmatized or view the government negatively, leading to a loss of interest in voting. As of 2010, approximately 93 percent of former felons, or about 14 million individuals, were eligible to vote. Can informing the formally incarcerated of their voting rights increase political participation?
Context of the evaluation
The state of Connecticut prohibits incarcerated felons from voting—like 47 other states—but, for some of them, restores their voting rights after release from prison and parole. For the purposes of this study, researchers included individuals that had not been convicted of a violent crime, served more than three years in prison, and were not registered to vote as of 2012. They served an average sentence of one year, and the most commonly committed crimes include possession or sale of narcotics, burglary, and violating protective orders. Overall, this sample constitutes 53 percent of all felons released between summer 2009 and summer 2012 in Connecticut.
Details of the intervention
In partnership with the Connecticut Secretary of State, researchers evaluated the impact of mailing voting rights information to ex-felons on their political participation. Among eligible ex-felons researchers randomly assigned half to the treatment group (3,146 individuals), who received a mailing reminding them of their eligibility to register to vote. The other half of former felons did not receive any mailings and served as the comparison group.
Roughly a week before the mail-in voter registration deadline for the November 2012 election, each ex-felon in the treatment group was sent a mailing from the Secretary of State. The mailing contained an official mail-in voter registration card and a letter from the Secretary of State. The letter stated that despite the recipients’ voter eligibility, they were not currently registered. The letter did not identify the recipient as an ex-felon. In addition, the letter provided information on the upcoming election and how to register, as well as appeals to civic duties and the responsibility to vote.
To measure the impact of the letters on political participation, researchers collected administrative data on voter registrations and actual voting for the November 2012 election.
Results and policy lessons
Former felons who were sent a mailing informing them of their eligibility were more likely to both register and vote. Voter registrations rose by 1.8 percentage points, a 30 percent increase from the 5.9 percent of comparison group ex-felons who registered. The proportion of former felons that ultimately voted also increased 30 percent, from 3.0 percent in the comparison group to 3.9 percent in the treatment group.
Mailings had the largest impact on individuals who had voted prior to their incarceration, suggesting that former voters may be more receptive to outreach. The impact of the mailing increased re-registrations by 8.4 percentage points and turnout by 7.7 percentage points among former felons who voted in the 2008 evaluations as compared to those who did not.
These result suggest that informing former felons of their voting eligibility may be an effective way to reduce the negative impact of incarceration on political participation.
Gerber, Alan, Gregory Huber, Marc Meredith, Daniel Biggers, and David Hendry. 2014. "Can Incarcerated Felons Be (Re)integrated into the Political System? Results from a Field Experiment." American Journal of Political Science. doi: 10.1111/ajps.12166