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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Felon Voting Rights Movement Gathers Steam

Following the example of Nebraska, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack announced on June 17th that he would restore voting rights for all convicted felons who have completed their sentences in his state. When Vilsack signs the executive order on July 4th (a nice touch), he will make 80 thousand ex-felons eligible to vote.
Disenfranchisement of felons has been used by the GOP as a powerful tool for reducing the vote of African Americans in particular, who vote close to 9-1 Democratic in presidential elections. As Kate Zernicke explains in her article in today’s New York Times:

Nationally, about 4.7 million people are ineligible to vote because of felony convictions, about 500,000 of them war veterans, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes alternatives to incarceration. About 1.4 million are black men.

This number represents about 13 percent of Black men, and in six states, one out of every four African American males have been disenfranchised as a result of felony convictions. In addition, convicted felons who are white often tend to be from impoverished and low-income families, another constituency which may lean Democratic.
The hope is that Vilsack’s example will inspire other states to take similar corrective measures. Currently, only Maine and Vermont give felons full voting rights, while other states have a patchwork of different restrictions, notes Zernicke:

According to the Right to Vote Campaign, which works to reverse laws preventing felons from voting, 14 states automatically restore voting rights to felons after they are released from prison; four states restore rights after ex-felons complete parole; and 18 states do so after they complete their prison sentence, parole and probation.
Iowa is one of five states – the others are Kentucky, Alabama, Florida and Virginia – that deny a vote to anyone convicted of a felony or an aggravated misdemeanor…Ryan King, a research associate at the Sentencing Project, said that about one million ex-felons, including 600,000 in Florida alone, would be eligible to vote if the four states with laws similar to Iowa’s granted voting rights to ex-felons

Movements to enfranchise felons who have served their time are underway across the nation, and lawsuits have been filed in behalf of them in several states. Of course there is no guarantee that, once enfranchised, ex-felons will exercize their voting rights. But Dems should take note that, given the statistics in Florida alone, it’s clear that this constituency could have a potent impact in election outcomes.