Southern Ban

Michael Morse unravels the “crazy quilt” of ex-felon disenfranchisement laws in the South.
July 1, 2013

There are many ways to lose the right to vote in this country, and, as Michael Morse, C’13, has discovered, the path back can be prohibitive and obscure, especially in the South. In the United States, disenfranchisement—the loss of voting rights—is a penalty that is frequently imposed on convicted felons, but the types of offenses resulting in disenfranchisement and when, or whether, the right to vote is regained vary widely from one state to the next. Morse, a political science major, has spent most of his undergraduate career tracing the machinations of state policies, using public information to track ex-felons through the system.

For his thesis, Morse explored the modern legacy of the Black Codes in the South, a series of discriminatory measures enacted by Southern legislatures in the aftermath of the Civil War. Included among these measures were laws that reclassified a number of crimes from misdemeanors into felonies, many of which are still permanently disenfranchising in states like Alabama and Mississippi. “The courts have had the difficult task of parsing the ‘original sin’ of these Southern laws, designed intentionally to disenfranchise blacks,” Morse writes, “from the modern fact that these laws, though facially neutral, continue to have a racially disparate effect.” In the last 15 years, Alabama and Mississippi have designated an additional 26 crimes as disenfranchising. Citing a report by The Sentencing Project, Morse notes that, on average, one in 13 blacks are disenfranchised, while in the South the number could be as high as one in five.

Morse travelled to Montgomery, Alabama, to collect public information on its restoration system and compiled a similarly original dataset for Mississippi. For both states—and the four others he looked at—he combined individually identifiable government data on crime, voting, and restoration to present a more detailed picture of what’s happening on the ground.

Morse’s examination revealed that the problem of disenfranchisement isn’t solely about the increase in disenfranchising crimes. It’s also the combination of discretionary and confusing regulations and the prohibitive cost that can be associated with regaining voting rights that has made the South home to the six states with the highest black disenfranchisement rates in the U.S. His research documents the “web of statutes, court rulings, and attorney general opinions” that has produced this result. In Alabama, for example, 29 crimes are explicitly defined as disenfranchising, but other crimes could fall under the ambiguous, and still officially undefined, term of “moral turpitude.” “There’s a huge amount of discretion in Alabama.” Morse says. “If […] your crime is arson, arson isn’t explicitly disenfranchised. Could it be? Whoever wants to say it is, it is.”

Alabama also has a muddled two-tiered system for restoring an ex-felon’s right to vote. Crimes like murder or treason require a pardon, while others, such as robbery, require a Certificate of Eligibility to Register to Vote. To be pardoned in Mississippi, meanwhile, a bill must be passed by the state congress in the ex-offender’s name. Because the system is murky for all concerned, Morse says, “the number of people who apply who never actually lost their right to vote is about a third.” When such applications are denied, an ex-felon may be denied reinstatement of a privilege that, technically, was never lost. 

For other ex-felons, restitution requirements can pose an insurmountable financial hurdle, as in Tennessee: “If I had child support, I don’t have to pay it before I vote.” Morse says. “I don’t have to pay my court fees, I don’t have to pay my loans. I can just vote. But not ex-felons.” Tennessee makes restoration contingent on child support. A black male in this state, Morse says, is about five times more likely to denied a restoration of civil rights than a white male according to preliminary analysis Morse and Marc Meredith, Assistant Professor of Political Science, expanded from Morse’s thesis.

In the course of his research, Morse found that even the process of getting information was discretionary, confusing, and costly. “I’ve spent a great deal of time filing freedom of information requests.” Morse says. He’s become such a nuisance to the state of Florida, in fact, that they now refuse to send him anything further—he’s effectively “maxed out.”

To get statewide voter files, he’s spent over $10,000, cobbled together from an array of Penn programs: UScholars; a College Alumni Society Research Grant; the Program on Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism; the Penn Humanities Forum; the Fox Leadership Program; and the Political Science Department. But it’s a necessary process, because, Morse says, “I’m attempting to inform an ongoing debate by bringing important, and largely unknown, primary data into the public conversation.” The importance of his thesis research has been recognized by a number of awards, including a Phi Beta Kappa Prize, a CURF Rose Award, and a shared Best American Political Science Thesis Award.

Morse’s interest in felon disenfranchisement began with a freshman-year class with political science professor Marie Gottschalk, which took him and his classmates to Philadelphia’s Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility to learn about the criminal justice system with inmates who were also signed up for the course. He also credits John DiIulio, Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society, with introducing him to the political elements of the issue.

For the most part, though, Morse has worked closely with his mentor, Marc Meredith, whom he credits with introducing him to a statistics-based approach. Their first joint paper, on felon disenfranchisement in Iowa, has been submitted for publication, and they are currently at work on an examination of the effects of notifying ex-felons in New York, New Mexico, and North Carolina that their right to vote, as a class, has been restored. Looking toward graduate school, Morse says that he hopes to combine creative writing with academic research to “contribute to the debate about the larger issues raised by our alarming, and yet largely unacknowledged, incarceration rate.” As he notes, “The reporter in me really likes the allure of using public information to tell a story about what’s going on on the ground.”