By Elizabeth Foy Larsen
Photos by Mark Luinenburg
Like many teenagers, Rob Stewart (B.A. ’12, M.A. ’18) started experimenting with marijuana and alcohol when he was in high school. Unfortunately for the Owatonna, Minnesota, native, an activity that began as a way to hang out with buddies quickly escalated to harder drug use and run-ins with the law. In 2007 he was arrested, tried, and convicted for possessing and attempting to sell methamphetamine to an informant. He was sentenced to 100 months of prison time and served 25 months under an early release program.
After he was released in 2009, Stewart, who is now studying for his Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Minnesota, moved to Alexandria, Minnesota, to pursue an associate’s degree at the local community college. While there, a professor encouraged Stewart and his classmates to attend the precinct caucuses. Stewart knew his felony conviction meant he wouldn’t be eligible to vote until 2015, when he finished his supervised release—Minnesota’s version of parole. But, having become interested in the political process while incarcerated, Stewart figured that attending the caucus was a positive step he could take to engage with his community.
So it came as a humiliating shock when the precinct captain announced that to take part in the caucus, people needed to be eligible to vote on Election Day. “My neighbors and the professor who had encouraged me to participate were there,” he says, recalling the moment when he had to publicly explain that he’d been convicted of a felony. “I was at a point in my life where I wanted to be involved and do positive things and to be shut out of the process was very difficult.” (Read our 2015 profile of Stewart here).
In most U.S. states, people with felony convictions are denied the right to vote in elections; some states automatically restore suffrage after incarceration, others do not. Only Maine and Vermont maintain voting rights even during a prison sentence, mirroring standards in Canada, Israel, and some European countries. In more than 30 states, it’s illegal to vote while completing parole (the supervised period after incarceration) or probation (which occurs prior to or in lieu of prison). That means that roughly 2.5 percent of the adult U.S. population, or 6.1 million people, can’t vote because of a felony conviction, according to a 2016 report coauthored by U sociology professor Christopher Uggen for the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit devoted to criminal justice reform.
“The United States has excessively punitive laws on disenfranchisement by global standards, and also excessive numbers of people who are subject to them,” says Uggen.
The policies disproportionately affect people living in poverty and black men, who are more often swept up into the criminal justice system. A recent study from the University of Georgia, also coauthored by Uggen, estimated that while 8 percent of the overall population have felony convictions, among African American men, the rate jumps to 33 percent.
“A lot of the laws grew out of the Civil War and reconstruction, when African American men got the right to vote,” he says. “There were a lot of disenfranchising measures passed, most of which, like poll taxes, have fallen by the wayside. But, voting restrictions on people with criminal records have persisted.”
In the U.S., there is a growing movement to restore felon voting rights—especially to those who have served their time—championed by people like Stewart, Uggen, and Sarah Walker, one of Uggen’s former graduate students.
“When you vote, no matter how frustrating politics are these days, it’s a way for us to feel connected to and invested in the decisions that govern our lives,” says Walker, a Twin Cities-based lobbyist who completed doctoral-level work in sociology in 2013 but has yet to write her dissertation. In 2007, she founded the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, which advocates for people involved in the criminal justice system. (Stewart serves on the organization’s board of directors, lobbies at the Legislature for changes to voting laws, and is executive director of the new Minnesota Justice Research Center.) A main goal is to mitigate the so-called “collateral consequences” of convictions, like the loss of suffrage. “If you don’t feel vested in [society], you’re more likely to break those rules, and the covenant that we’re making when we vote,” Walker says.
In fact, research done by Uggen and New York University sociology professor Jeff Manza shows that being able to vote may help former felons get back into the civic life of their communities, thereby possibly reducing recidivism. “We think about work and family and housing as being the key to social reintegration, but there is this civic reintegration piece of it that voting comes to symbolize,” Uggen says. “Voting is perhaps one of the most visible and tangible symbols of being an adult citizen in good standing in society.”
Walker, who in 2014 successfully lobbied for a Ban the Box law in Minnesota, prohibiting private employers from asking job applicants about their criminal histories on initial applications, says felon voting rights are of particular concern in Minnesota—a state with some of the highest rates of probation and supervised release in the U.S. and long probation sentences. “It could be that you took a plea bargain so you didn’t go to prison for a drug crime, and you never spent a day in prison, but you can’t vote for 20 or 30 years,” she explains.
Uggen’s research shows that 68 percent of Americans believe people on supervised probation should have the right to vote. Sixty percent believe a person should be able to vote while on parole. “The clear majority said, ‘Once you’ve done your time you should be able to vote,’” he says.
Still, despite public support for the issue— recently, New York and Maryland reinstated voting rights for those who have completed their prison sentences but remain on parole—many lawmakers are reluctant to take up the cause of felon voting rights for fear of appearing soft on crime. (Uggen’s research also shows that restoring voting rights to felons would give Democratic candidates a slight advantage and would have the greatest impact in close elections in states with the strictest disenfranchisement laws, such as Florida. Felons voting would likely have changed the outcome of the 2000 U.S. presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush.)
Slow progress doesn’t stop advocates like Walker, who says restoring suffrage for felons is one of the issues she may “die working on.” In addition to citing statistics showing the majority of Minnesotans who lose their voting rights are white and live outside the Twin Cities—many due to the opioid epidemic—she draws a connection between felons voting and high-profile police shootings of African Americans.
“It’s about, who is your chief of police and who is helping decide which ordinances are enforced,” explains Walker, who serves on a Minneapolis committee addressing policecommunity relations. “When we talk about building trust within communities, how can you do that if those communities have no say in the political process? Yes, there’s stuff we need to do to improve relationships between cops and citizens, and the city council and citizens—but ultimately, if you can’t vote, you are ignored.”
For Stewart, who says his drug addiction and incarceration made him feel like an outcast, regaining his voting rights turned out to be an emotional experience. “When I was released, I was really enthusiastic about rejoining society, doing positive things, and trying to make up for the harm I caused to my family and my community,” he says. “When I was able to vote and actually did vote, I was overwhelmed because finally I started to feel ‘normal’ again—like I was no longer on the outside.”
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