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Opaque Landscape of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws Poses Challenge for Young Voters

According to our survey, more than half of young people could not correctly identify whether someone with a felony conviction can vote in their state, and even more erroneously believe those with misdemeanors can't vote.

For many young people, voting in elections is not so much a question of interest and enthusiasm, but of opportunity and access. One of the factors that can foster or hinder young people’s electoral participation is the elections laws in their state. Evidence suggests that some laws, such as automatic voter registration, pre-registration, or same-day registration, may support youth turnout, but others can potentially inhibit youth participation in elections. These include laws that disenfranchise people convicted of felonies, which can bar some young people from voting and may create a chilling effect by misleading young people who were convicted of misdemeanors or had other criminal violations to believe that they too are ineligible to vote.

To understand the magnitude of this potential chilling effect, CIRCLE’s 2020 pre-election poll of youth (ages 18-29) asked respondents if U.S. citizens who were convicted of felonies and/or misdemeanors were still allowed to vote in their state. We then compared their answers to the actual laws of the state in which each respondent lived. We found that:

  • 63% of young people either answered incorrectly or said they did not know whether people with felony convictions were permitted to vote. Young people were more likely to be correct when they lived in a state that did not permit people with felony convictions to vote, highlighting that these barriers are often perceived even if they do not actually exist.
  • Barely half (53%) of young people correctly said that young people who had committed misdemeanors could still vote, which is true in all states.
  • Young people who were taught how to register to vote in high school were more likely to answer questions about disenfranchisement for felony and misdemeanor offenses correctly.

About the Poll: The first wave of the CIRCLE/Tisch College 2020 Youth Survey was fielded from May 20 to June 18, 2020. The survey covered adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who will be eligible to vote in the United States by the 2020 General Election. The sample was drawn from the Gallup Panel, a probability-based panel that is representative of the U.S. adult population, and from the Dynata Panel, a non-probability panel. A total of 2,232 eligible adults completed the survey, which includes oversamples of 18- to 21-year-olds (N=671), Asian American youth (N=306), Black youth (N=473), Latino youth (N=559) and young Republicans (N=373). Of the total completes, 1,019 were from the Gallup Panel and 1,238 were from the Dynata Panel. Unless stated otherwise, ‘youth’ refers to those ages 18- to 29-years old. The margin of error for the poll, taking into account the design effect from weighting, is +/- 4.1 percentage points. Margins of error for racial and ethnic subgroups range from +/-8.1 to 11.0 percentage points.

Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States

Every U.S. state allows people convicted of misdemeanors to vote.[1] However, some states strip voting rights from people who have been convicted of felonies. Our review of disenfranchisement laws found that 31 states prohibit voting among people convicted of a felony who have been released from prison on parole. Other scans, including by the National Conference of State Legislatures, also map the byzantine landscape of felon disenfranchisement laws.

These disenfranchisement laws are often opaque, hyperspecific, and difficult to interpret. For instance, in California, convicted felons are prohibited from voting if they were in a state or federal jail, but not if they were in a county jail. Moreover, some states that disenfranchise people convicted of felonies restore voting rights after a period of time or once other requirements have been met following release from prison. Public opinion polling indicates that most Americans nationwide support voting rights restoration, and residents of some states have recently overturned felon disenfranchisement through ballot initiatives, as Florida did in 2018,[2] and have challenged the constitutionality of these laws in court.

Despite some recent rollbacks of disenfranchisement laws, more than 4.5 million people in the U.S. cannot vote due to a past conviction, according to the Brennan Center. As with much of the system of mass incarceration in America, these laws disproportionately affect Black people: a 2019 study from The Sentencing Project found that one in 13 Black men in America is denied access to the ballot.

Many Young People Were Wrong about or Unaware of Disenfranchisement Laws

Felon disenfranchisement laws can impede voter participation, not just by prohibiting Americans with felony convictions from voting, but also by erecting barriers to voting due to opaque and complex information that is often not distributed widely and equitably.

Our survey asked young people to answer, based on what they knew or believed, whether a person who has been convicted of a felony and is on parole could vote in the 2020 election. Only 37% of all respondents provided the correct answer for their state, with the rest of the respondents split between the incorrect answer or saying they were not sure.

Young people were much more likely to be incorrect when they lived in states with no voting restrictions for felony convictions—in other words, they were more likely to assume people with felonies could not vote when they actually could, rather than vice versa. Just 23% of youth who lived in states with no felon disenfranchisement laws correctly stated that people with felony convictions could vote, compared to 52% of youth in states with a felon disenfranchisement law who correctly said they could not vote.

That young people were more likely to perceive barriers to voting even where they did not exist reinforces the findings from a 2018 survey CIRCLE conducted with Opportunity Youth United (OYUnited). Many young people in the OYUnited study (ages 18 to 34) assumed that voting laws were more restrictive than they actually were. For instance, participants reported thinking that some non-felony infractions, such as having a misdemeanor on their record or a suspended driver’s license, would bar them from voting. This pattern exists regarding other forms of restrictive voting laws as well: a CIRCLE study from 2012 found that young people believed they needed identification to vote even when they lived in states that did not have a Voter ID requirement.

On a similar note, about half (47%) of young people said that having a misdemeanor on one’s record precluded voting or were unsure if it did. That is not the case in any state. It is estimated that one in three Americans will be arrested by the age of 23, so many young people who perceive this barrier to voting may incorrectly assume they are not allowed to head to the polls when in actuality they can. This effect is compounded by other research demonstrating that, even for non-disenfranchising offenses, jail sentences and other interactions with the criminal-legal system demobilize potential voters

Our questions about young people’s knowledge of disenfranchisement laws also revealed differences among youth by race. Asian youth were the least likely to know that people with misdemeanors could still vote (39% correct) and the least likely to correctly answer whether people with felony convictions could vote in their state (23% correct). However, other data complicate this picture as well: Black youth, for instance, were less likely than White and Latino youth to know that people with misdemeanors could still vote, but they were more likely to know if people with felony convictions retained their voting rights.

Learning about Voting in High School Linked to Knowledge of Voting Rights

We also asked about participants if they were taught how to register to vote in high school and whether teachers in their high school had encouraged them to vote. As we detailed in an earlier analysis, youth who reported being encouraged to vote and/or taught about how to register were more likely to be knowledgeable about the upcoming elections and more civically engaged across a variety of metrics. For instance, students who enjoyed voter instruction or encouragement in high school were more likely to know whether their states offered online voter registration and were more likely to have seen information on how to vote by mail.

Our survey’s findings on the connection between learning about voting in high school and understanding disenfranchisement laws were slightly more mixed. On the one hand, young people who received instruction about how to register to vote were more likely to know whether felony convictions prevented people from voting in their state: 40% to 34%. However, there was no difference among youth who did or did not receive encouragement to vote in high school.

In contrast, both encouragement and instruction are statistically significantly associated with improvements in young people’s awareness that people with misdemeanors maintained their voting rights. Fifty-eight percent of young people whose high school teachers taught them how to register knew that people with misdemeanors could vote, compared to half of youth who did not receive this kind of instruction. These rates were virtually identical to those of young people who received encouragement to vote: 58% knew people with misdemeanors could vote and 49% did not.

These findings suggest that, when it comes to growing voters, encouragement to vote should be coupled with high-quality and clear information about who can vote and how to register. Encouragement can support young people’s sense of efficacy in electoral participation, and teaching about the mechanics of voting can empower students to act upon this confidence, and high-quality teaching about elections may prepare young people to navigate and interpret often opaque elections laws about issues like disenfranchisement. Indeed, when young people are both encouraged and provided with clear information, these experiences seem to have a multiplicative effect: students who received both encouragement and information about how to vote in high school were more likely to be correct about the voting rights of people with past felonies or misdemeanors than students who received neither or just one.

Conclusions

Felon disenfranchisement and re-enfranchisement laws vary widely across different states, leaving many young people uncertain or misinformed: many young people in our poll were unsure or incorrect about whether their state allowed people with a felony or a misdemeanor conviction to vote.. They were most likely to be incorrect by perceiving greater barriers to voting than in fact existed, which can hinder youth engagement in elections. Teaching about how to register to vote at the high school level as part of a Growing Voters paradigm may help reframe these perceptions.


[1] Some states (like New Hampshire and New York) make rare exceptions in cases of bribery or elections-related violations.

[2] There is still ongoing litigation around whether people with felony convictions in Florida need to pay fees owed to the state in order to have their voting rights restored.

Authors: Kristian Lundberg, Alison Cohen, Alberto Medina