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Ballot Manipulation and the “Menace of Negro Domination”: Racial Threat and Felon Disfranchisement in the United States, 1850-2000 (WP-02-40)

Angela Behrens, Christopher Uggens, and Jeff Manza

Criminal offenders in the United States typically forfeit voting rights as collateral consequences of their felony convictions. This paper presents the first systematic analysis of the origins and development of these felon disfranchisement provisions across the states. Because such laws tend to dilute the voting strength of racial minorities, we build on theories of group threat to test whether racial threat influenced their passage. Our event history analysis shows that the rate of adoption peaked in the late 1860s and 1870s, the period when extending voting rights to African Americans was most ardently contested. Consistent with one version of the racial threat thesis, we find that large nonwhite prison populations increase the risk of passing restrictive laws, even when the effects of time, region, economic conditions, political partisanship, population, and punitiveness are statistically controlled. These findings are important for understanding restrictions on the civil rights of citizens convicted of crimes, and more generally for the role of racial conflict in American political development.

Angela Behrens, Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota

Christopher Uggen, Department of Sociology, University of Minnesota

Jeff Manza, Department of Sociology, Northwestern University

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