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"Civil Death" or Civil Rights? Public Attitudes Towards Felon Disfranchisement in the United States (WP-02-39)

Jeff Manza, Clem Brooks, and Christopher Uggen

This paper presents new experimental survey results about Americans’ attitudes toward the political disfranchisement 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 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. Those who endorse other civil liberties and a rehabilitative orientation to punishment tend to favor extending voting rights to convicted 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 even 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 disfranchisement laws.

Jeff Manza, Department of Sociology, Northwestern University

Clem Brooks, Department of Sociology, Indiana University

Christopher Uggen, Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota

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