I can remember sitting at a thesis defense which eventually got around to the normative position that allowing felons to vote would be good for the Democratic party. The conversation, like many, appropriately focused on the over-representation of black and brown people in the carceral state. However, voting is a game of raw numbers. I mentioned to the student that whites often make up a majority of prisoners, and, if not, still make up a significant portion – in FL, they make up 41% in contrast, while blacks make up 46%. A similar distribution can be seen in the vastly greater portion of Americans on parole or otherwise in the non-incarcerated hands of the justice system. I told the student that the kind of people I’ve known who been in jail (admittedly, a relatively small sample) were pretty conservative.
The Marshall Project recently released data from a poll of prison populations. From their documentation: “Ultimately, the Marshall Project/Slate decided not to weight the overall data at the time of publish, both because data collection is still ongoing and because of the difficulty in obtaining population level data for individual prisons and jails vs. state and federal level incarcerated populations. The data should therefore not be considered a representative picture of the entire incarcerated population of the United States.”
Be that as it may, 45% of white prisoners said they’d vote for Trump; with 30% voting for one of the 10 Democratic candidates in the race at the time of voting – the survey was administered while Booker was still running if that gives you a sense of the field; just barely beating “Don’t Know” at 25%. 54% of voters of color supported one of the Democratic candidates, 19% supported Trump, and 29% supported “Don’t Know”. (Trump did better than any individual candidate).
Participation rates, according to the survey, are likely to be low and views about politics are shaped by prison as a function of time incarcerated.
There is little known about the prison population – often on purpose. The American carceral state exists in part to forget about people. But, felon enfranchisement may not be the slam dunk for Democrats that many advocates suggest. For justice advocates, I imagine this actually a good thing given that they can claim neither party will benefit. Politically, though, that might be a tough sell because the history of enfranchisement in America has mostly been one that depends on one particular party benefiting from a new group of grateful voters.
Things got a little bit testy, though, as I reminded the student that prison populations and parolees are overwhelmingly male. To the extent that we’ve seen gains in female representation in local, state, and federal elections, it is through success in the Democratic party. What the survey didn’t ask, and I would *love* to know, is how willing former and current members of the prison population are to vote for female candidates – specifically how willing the former and current Democratic prisoners are willing to vote for female candidates. This is less important for Republicans who don’t really nominate women in the first place.
My guess is that the gender gap we see in politics would exist for incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, or free populations. 24% of black men in America support Donald Trump, while only 6% of black women do. I haven’t dug into the data from the Marshall project, but, that distribution looks similar in prison and out.
So, is this good for criminal justice reform? Hopefully? Criminal justice reform has been one issue where Democrats and Republicans have at least tried to find common ground in the First Step Act. Given the number of felons this Presidency has generate and will generate (absent pardons), perhaps it will soon be in the interest of Republicans.