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LaGrange College students help out with coming decision on ex-felon voting rights

There’s a relatively new trend in Georgia politics. Rather than have committees meeting behind closed doors, exclusively in Atlanta, lawmakers have been holding public committee meetings across the state on controversial issues such as restoring the voting rights of nonviolent felons upon release. And in addition to hearing from interest groups, they’re listening to what our undergraduate researchers from LaGrange College have to say.

My research methods students have spent the semester gathering data on more than 20 variables for all 50 states (and another 20 democratic countries) in a quest to help determine what Georgia should do when former felons are released from prison.

We’ve found that democracies around the world respond to the issue with as much variety as America’s states, with several completely disenfranchising ex-felons and with others never even taking away that right to vote. In America, 16 states and Washington, D.C., either allow ex-felons to vote or allow them to vote upon release, often during parole and probation. The other 34 states require that parole to be completed, or even probation as well, often having to reapply for those rights.

Most states wouldn’t be affected by the results if all former felons were allowed to vote again, as they wouldn’t make up a large enough percentage to tip the scales in more than 90% of states in 2016. Yet some of those states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New Hampshire and Florida) were close enough to tip the scales in 2016, if they all voted one way.

States which support withholding the voting rights of ex-felons tend to have more residents who declare themselves to be conservative, vote Republican and be religious. Yet in a vote to restore those rights in a 2018 Florida ballot initiative, the measure passed by a 2-1 margin, with men and women voting for it in equal rates, according to a poll. At the same time, young and older people supported it according to a poll, as did African-Americans, Hispanics and whites (by a majority similar to Hispanics). Only Asian-Americans opposed it, as well as Republicans, in the poll.

States that restore the voting rights of former felons tend to have slightly lower crime rates and have fewer cases of voting fraud on average. There’s no difference between states that re-establish those rights and those that don’t when it comes to recidivism (repeat offenders), state-level corruption, other voting barriers and levels of background checks.

I’m not sure how the Georgia state Senate is going to rule on the measure. But Senate Study Committee Chair Randy Robertson, a Republican, and his four colleagues (state Sens. Mike Dugan, Burt Jones, Harold Jones and Michael Rhett) deserve thanks for putting the question to a diverse group ranging from the ACLU to the Secretary of State’s office.

The Georgia state senators should also be praised for letting the LaGrange College undergraduates get their 15 minutes of political engagement by presenting the results of this study before the committee. Rather than engage in partisan bickering, these students, conservative, moderate and liberal, are taking the kinds of issues the General Assembly wrestles with on a daily basis, and provide the kind of professional research that they’ll need to perform long after they graduate to meet the demands of the world of business, law, academia, education, and maybe even politics one day.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2. He would like to thank his undergraduate researchers Tia Braxton, Melanie Chambers, Natalie Glass, Porter Law, Jaydon Parrish, Elijah Robertson, Payton Smith, Jason Timms Caleb Tyler, Andrew Valbuena, Ben Womack for their hard work and willingness to step up to the challenge.