Jeff Manza, Clem Brooks, and Christopher Uggen. 2004. "Civil Death or Civil Rights? Public Attitudes Toward Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States." Forthcoming in Public Opinion Quarterly.


This paper presents experimental survey results about Americans’ attitudes towards the political disenfranchisement of felons and ex-felons. Two long-term trends in public opinion provide the backdrop for this investigation: strong (though variable) public support for conservative anti-crime policies, and growing public support for civil rights and civil liberties for most major groups. We find evidence that Americans generally favor providing non-incarcerated felons (those on probation, parole, and ex-felons who have completed their sentences) with the right to vote. These results are robust in the face of alternative question wordings. Civil liberties support and a rehabilitative orientation to punishment significantly raise the likelihood of extending voting rights to all relevant categories of ex-felons, even when the effects of age, race, sex, region, residency, education, and ideological identification are statistically controlled. In the clash between two different imperatives – a desire to punish and deter crime versus a desire to promote and protect the civil liberties of unpopular groups – we find evidence that the latter has greater public support. The paper concludes with a discussion of how these results might inform the recently emerging debate over felon disenfranchisement laws.