House Bill 5418, An Act Restoring Electoral Privileges to Felony Convicts Who Are on Parole, already has 31 Democratic co-sponsors but no public Republican support. As the bill nears a vote in the final days of the 2018 General Assembly, this is a mistake for Connecticut’s GOP.
Connecticut Republicans need to support HB 5418 because they stand to gain as much as the Democrats to by refranchising parolees in Connecticut.
It’s usually Republicans railing against restoring rights to felons. Witness how Texas Senator Ted Cruz equated justice-involvement with Democratic affiliation in in 2015, as the 2016 presidential primary races approached: “The simple and undeniable fact is the overwhelming majority of violent criminals are Democrats.”
Felony disenfranchisement is a form of gerrymandering. That is, it’s an attempt to control who votes in an election. Republicans assume that, because a majority of justice-involved people are minorities, refranchised people will create an entirely new constituency for their opponents.
Republicans need to stop leaning on this tired theory. Assuming that people with criminal records will unilaterally support Democratic candidates is contrary to the evidence on our political preferences.
While it’s true that one 2014 study found that ex-offenders in three states were more likely to register as Democrats, another study of three different states showed returning citizens actually register as independents.
During a 2016 presidential primary, one sixth of all Republican voters in Puerto Rico were incarcerated. These inmates were registered Republicans.
The potential for Republican candidates in a refranchised felon voting block was proven in the special election last year for the Alabama senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions after he was confirmed as Attorney General.
In the days before the Alabama senate election, anywhere between 5000 and 10,000 ex-offenderswere registered to vote. After years of confusion about which convictions cost Alabamians their right to vote, Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama legislature clarified who was eligible a few months before the Senate election and refranchised them.
Polling prior to the election showed ex-offenders supporting Moore. Answers that indicated support for the Republican candidate might have been part of a strategy to throw pollsters off the scent of support for Jones, and the pollsters admit that their sample size was small.
But the polling results provided some proof that the ex-offender population is not a guaranteed vote for the Democratic candidate, even when the Republican candidate is highly controversial.
I know anecdotally that far more felons voted for Trump than one might expect; people who were in the big house with me will actively oppose any “big government” candidate.
My experience wasn’t unusual. After New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo refranchised 35,000 parolees last month by executive order as Republicans fumed, a New York state parole officer called into a local radio show to explain that most of the people he supervised supported Trump in the last presidential election. (found at 23:40)
To me as a formerly incarcerated person, it’s one of the most dehumanizing experiences when people assume that I think like and agree with everyone who was incarcerated with me. We aren’t a monolith; we make our own decisions and we are on the lookout for the best candidate, regardless of his or her party.
Adding in 3,000 more thoughtful voters may not seem that important, but these votes are especially necessary in Connecticut where many state races are squeakers. In 2016, Republican Sam Belsito won the 53rd House District by 68 votes. Democrat Steve Cassano won the 4th Senate District by 48 votes and Democrat Joe Diminico won the 13th House District by 42 votes. Refranchising parolees can make all the difference in maintaining these leads – or capturing them.
When former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored as many as 200,000 felons’ voting rights weeks before the 2016 presidential election, only seven percent of those newly eligible voters registered quickly.
Because the election is only six months away, not only should the State of Connecticut refranchise parolees, campaign managers in these districts should hold voter registration drives if they want to keep their leads – or take one from their opponents.
The whole population of people with criminal records is vast; it totals 65 million in the United States. And, more likely than not, people with criminal records aren’t totally disenfranchised. The Sentencing Project estimates that 5.85 million of those people with criminal records have permanently lost their right to vote because of felony convictions.
This means, then, that approximately 59 million of those people are potential supporters for any political candidate. It can be a fatal mistake for any political party to assume that this population won’t support its candidates. It’s quite the opposite; we’re up for grabs.
That’s why disenfranchising people from the vote isn’t just wrong; it’s dumb if you’re a politician who wants to win.
Chandra Bozelko lives in Orange and is a former inmate at York Correctional Institution. Prison Diaries, the column she wrote in prison, will win a Webby Award on May 14, 2018.