Article published Monday, October 20, 2008, at Fox News.

How Felons Who Vote Can Tip an Election

By John R. Lott, Jr. and Sonya Jones

How much is your vote worth? Apparently, less than it used to be. The registration and multiple registration of so many people who shouldn’t be voting means your vote is diluted by fraudulent votes.

There is a practical concern here. Research by one of the authors here finds that vote fraud lowers the likelihood that people’s votes will matter and thus results in few people voting.

People have heard about many of these problems.

-- ACORN has signed up 1.3 million people this year in a massive registration drive in 18 swing states, with people being reregistered dozens of times.

-- A Government Accountability Office study indicates that 3 percent of people called for jury duty from voter registration rolls are not U.S. citizens.

-- Across the country there are counties were more people are registered to vote than the adult population living there. In Indianapolis, registered voters are 5 percent more than the number of adults living in the city.

But little attention has been paid to the tens of thousands of felons who registered to vote in state after state. An investigation by the Sun Sentinel newspaper in Florida found 30,000 felons registered to vote.

Washington state has removed 11,610 felon registrations from the voter rolls over the last three years, but the number of felons registering seems to be overwhelming its efforts. Seattle’s KIRO-TV reported this week that nearly 24,000 criminals are active voters, including many felons who shouldn't be voting. Unfortunately, KIRO investigative reporter Chris Halsne said he “can't give anyone an absolute number on how many of those felons are ineligible. But the secretary of state's office can't either."

The Washington secretary of state rejected criticism from journalists and watchdog groups by saying such stories “didn't take into account that many of those people on the list may have ultimately been convicted of lesser charges, or have had their rights restored.” But, the secretary of state has offered no evidence to back up his claim, and State Elections Director Nick Handy says, “it's impossible to know” these numbers.

All this wouldn’t matter too much if felons voted the same way citizens do generally, but they clearly don’t.

Academic work by Jeff Manza and Marcus Britton of Northwestern University and Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota estimated that Bill Clinton pulled 86 percent of the felon vote in 1992 and a whopping 93 percent in '96.

A Public Opinion Strategies survey interviewed 602 adults in Washington State in May 2005. Of the respondents, 102 were felons who had their voting rights restored, while 500 were non-felons. Even after accounting for other differences that predict how people vote — race, gender, education level, religious habits, employment, age, and county of residence — felons were 36 percent more likely than non-felons with the same characteristics to have voted for John Kerry over George W. Bush and 37 percent more likely to be registered Democratic.

African-American and Asian felons in Washington reported that they voted exclusively for Kerry.

While not all felons may be as Democratic as those in Washington State, the survey indicates that the previous estimates understated how frequently felons vote Democratic. In fact, it looks as if virtually all felons are Democrats. Felons are not just like everyone else. And the fact that felons are even more likely to vote Democratic than previously believed surely guarantees that some Democratic supporters will continue their efforts to get them to the polls.

This is a sensitive issue in Florida and Washington, because voting by felons has clearly caused them big problems. Tens of thousands of ineligible felons probably voted in Florida in the disputed 2000 presidential election.

The Seattle Times identified 129 felons in just King and Pierce counties who had voted illegally in the much disputed 2004 gubernatorial election — in a race that Democrat Christine Gregoire won by, coincidentally, 129 votes. Extrapolating the illegal felon vote across the entire state, it appears that Gregoire owed her controversial victory to the votes of ineligible felons.

But if this is the way these felons wanted to vote, why shouldn’t their preferences for how the government should be run be weighed as much as anyone else’s? Why shouldn't felons be able to vote if they have paid their debt to society? Simply because society believes that the debt includes a prohibition on voting.

It is hardly a radical notion to penalize felons long after they have left prison or completed parole. Laws deny released felons the right to hold office, to retain professional licenses (lawyers, for example, lose their ability to practice), or to serve as an officer in a publicly traded company. Felons, by law, can in some cases lose their right to inherit property, to collect pension benefits or even to get a truck-driving license.

In most states, the loss of voting rights does not last as long as other prohibitions.

In addition, post-sentence penalties are placed on criminals who not only have committed felonies but who have committed misdemeanors, including, under federal law, the right to own a gun.

When people harm others, we learn something about them. Do we want someone who has committed multiple rapes helping determine how much money will be spent on social programs that help rape victims?

Yet, felons' illegal voting may soon become a non-issue. For years, Democrats in Congress have pushed to let felons get the right to vote nationwide, and their push is understandable. Manza and his co-authors' results imply that this "felon vote" would have given Democrats control of the Senate from 1986 to 2004. With Democrats possibly getting a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate as well as the presidency, it will be easy for them to enact this legislation.

Vote fraud is corrosive. But, ironically, those who constantly talk about making voting easy and allow these fraudulent votes will discourage legitimate voters from voting.

*John Lott is the author of Freedomnomics and a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland.

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