Voters in Florida approved a ballot measure on Tuesday that restores voting rights to citizens with felony convictions once they have completed their full sentence.
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.
The results from my study in Virginia might give a glimpse of what could be expected in Florida, now that Amendment 4 has passed.
Florida votes to change its felony disenfranchisement laws
Before the amendment passed, more than 6 million U.S. citizens did not have the right to vote due to state laws that limited the voting rights of people who have been convicted of a felony.
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.
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.
Amendment 4 changed the Florida State Constitution.
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.
New research from Virginia
In Virginia, an ex-offender can only regain their right to vote if the governor signs an executive order personally restoring their civil rights.
Typically, previous governors waited for people to apply and considered individual applications for restoration with varying scrutiny. But in 2016 and 2017, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe made the unprecedented move to proactively restore voting rights to more than 150,000 ex-offenders – more than any other governor in U.S. history.
I went to Virginia during the November 2017 statewide election, shortly after many new restoration orders had been processed. I recruited a sample of 93 citizens with felony convictions to complete two surveys – one before the election, and one after.
More than 70 percent of these individuals already had their voting rights restored by the governor, but many of them were not aware of their newly restored rights.
I randomly divided them into groups. After the first survey and before the election, individuals in one group were informed about whether their voting rights had been restored. Individuals in another group were not provided with this information. I then compared the attitudes within the two groups before and after the election.
Since many subjects were unaware that their voting rights had already been restored, the study randomly increased information about their new voting rights. Because the two groups being compared are similar in every way – except for the information they received about voting rights – I am able to measure the effects of learning that your right to vote has been restored.
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 findings corroborate results from another study I conducted in November 2014. The earlier study similarly informed some citizens with felony convictions in Ohio that their voting rights had been restored. Compared to another group who was not provided with this information, subjects who were informed that their voting rights had been restored reported higher trust in the government and the police.
These trusting and pro-democratic attitudes are known to help citizens reintegrate into their communities upon release from prison.
Not being allowed to vote creates a lasting stigma that makes it harder for them to see themselves as valuable members of society. On the other hand, being encouraged to vote causes people to become more informed and more trusting.
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. However, a recent study estimated that Amendment 4 was unlikely to provide a significant advantage to either party.
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.
Beyond the effects Amendment 4 might have on voter turnout and electoral outcomes, it could also decrease crime and the costs of the criminal justice system.