Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza. 2002. "Democratic Contraction? The Political Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States." American Sociological Review 67:777-803.


Universal suffrage is a cornerstone of democratic governance. As levels of criminal punishment have risen in the United States, however, an ever-larger number of citizens have lost the right to vote. We ask whether felon disenfranchisement constitutes a meaningful reversal of the extension of voting rights by considering its political impact. We examine data from legal sources, election studies, and inmate surveys to consider two counterfactual conditions: (1) whether removing disenfranchisement restrictions would have altered the outcomes of U.S. Senate and presidential elections; and, (2) whether applying contemporary rates of disenfranchisement to prior elections would have affected their outcomes. Because felons are drawn disproportionately from the ranks of racial minorities and the poor, disenfranchisement laws tend to take more votes from Democratic than from Republican candidates. We find that felon disenfranchisement played a decisive role in U.S. Senate elections, helping to establish the Republican Senate majority of the 1990s. Moreover, at least one Republican presidential victory would have been reversed even if only former felons had been allowed to vote and at least one Democratic presidential victory would have been jeopardized had contemporary rates of disenfranchisement prevailed during earlier periods.