By Kevin Morris (NYU)
Many of the negative effects of mass incarceration on neighborhoods have been well documented by scholars in recent years. The incarceration of community members has been shown to cause negative health outcomes, to disrupt labor markets, and to make residents less trustful of their local government. Residents who live in neighborhoods touched by mass incarceration exhibit symptoms of trauma and are more likely to suffer from anxiety than others. One aspect of incarceration’s effects on neighborhoods, however, remains less studied: felony disenfranchisement, or the suspension of voting rights. Nearly everywhere in the United States, the political rights of individuals convicted of felony offenses are severely curtailed. This project shows that the disenfranchisement of community members has serious impacts on neighborhood turnout in local elections.
Felony disenfranchisement has a long history in the United States. Although the concept predates the founding of the United States, many states implemented disenfranchisement laws in the wake of the Civil War. As the Reconstruction Amendments threatened White power structures by guaranteeing Black men the right to vote and equal protection under the law, felony disenfranchisement spread. In 1974, the United States Supreme Court upheld felony disenfranchisement as legal under the Fourteenth Amendment, arguing that it allows voting rights to be abridged for “participation in rebellion, or other crime.”
As the reach of the American carceral state has spread, so too have the potential political ramifications of disenfranchisement policy. Today, the United States has an incarceration rate more than double that of any other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development country. Moreover, as many scholars have detailed in recent decades, there are tremendous racial disparities in the incarceration rate. In New York State, for instance, Black residents make up 49.5% of incarcerated individuals, despite accounting for just 14.3% of citizens over the age of 17 in the state. There is also enormous spatial concentration of police activity: in the first 10 months of 2017, for instance, more than a third of all stop-and-frisk police encounters occurred in just 5% of New York City’s census block groups.
For the past generation, researchers have tried to understand the political implications of such high levels of incarceration that are nevertheless concentrated in certain communities. Because of data constraints, these studies have often looked to see if felony disenfranchisement reduces political participation at the state level. Yet, as we know, felony disenfranchisement is geographically concentrated in pockets within a given state. Although the state-level research has returned mixed findings about the representational consequences of felony disenfranchisement, it is possible that highly geographically concentrated effects might be undetectable at the state-level.
This project unpacks the implications of felony disenfranchisement on neighborhood-level political representation using administrative data from New York City. By linking voter-purge records from the Board of Elections with incarceration data from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, I identify all individuals who had a history of participating in elections but were disenfranchised as of the NYC mayoral election in 2017. As the map below demonstrates, the pre-incarceration neighborhoods of these “lost voters” were concentrated in the South Bronx, Harlem, and Central Brooklyn.
After identifying the neighborhoods that were home to lost voters, I ask whether the neighborhoods they left behind turned out at lower rates in the 2017 mayoral election. I find that each lost voter is associated with a reduction in turnout of 0.8 percentage points – a not-insignificant effect when just 17% of the citizen voting age population of New York City participated in the election, according to voter-file data. More troubling yet, this project finds that these effects are larger in Non-Hispanic Black neighborhoods. Not only, therefore, are Black neighborhoods more likely to lose a voter; the loss of each voter is also associated with a larger depressive effect.
Of course, finding that turnout in a given year in neighborhoods with lost voters does not prove causality. Despite using regression techniques meant to control for other neighborhood characteristics, it is possible the neighborhoods with lost voters differ substantially from other neighborhoods with similar demographic and economic makeups. In order to test whether there is a causal relationship between the loss of a voter and neighborhood turnout, I also look to see whether neighborhoods that lost a voter between 2016 and 2017 saw their turnout decrease by more than neighborhoods that lost no voters in the period. I find that, even after adopting strict statistical controls, the loss of a voter to disenfranchisement appears to have a substantive depressive effect on neighborhood turnout.
In all but two states in the United States of America, citizens face at least a temporary “civil death” in which their voting rights are suspended. The loss of voting rights for an individual are serious – such suspensions can permanently change the way these individuals understand their relationship with the state. But as this project demonstrates, the collateral damage caused by felony disenfranchisement extends beyond the individuals whose rights are directly curtailed. It also causes neighborhoods to turn out at lower rates, reducing their representation in citywide elections. Understanding precisely why neighbors respond to disenfranchisement by not turning out and how these individuals can be re-knit with the body politic is of great importance for future researchers.
Kevin Morris is a researcher in the Voting Rights and Elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice. His research focuses on the consequences of felony disenfranchisement, voter purges, and progressive reforms to ballot access. He has a master’s degree in urban planning from New York University.