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Prop 17 Would Allow Parolees Into the Ballot Box. How Would They Vote?

California Proposition 17


This November’s ballot will feature proposition 17, which would allow Californians on parole for a felony conviction to vote. Currently, felons must complete their prison sentence and their parole sentence to vote. Could parolees swing elections in the state’s most competitive districts?

The term “parolees” applies to people who are allowed back into the community from prison before their prison sentence is scheduled to be completed, as long as they follow certain guidelines and reporting requirements. Roughly 52,000 Californians are expected to be on parole in 2021. 

California parolees should be expected to lean left as a voting bloc. In 2007, Florida gave 150,000 ex-felons who had been convicted for less serious offenses the right to vote. (At the time, in Florida, all felons – even if they’d completed their prison sentence – were disqualified from voting.) A study of this policy found that the partisan affiliations of ex-felons roughly matched partisan trends observed in the general public, with the overwhelming majority of Black ex-felons registering as Democrats and a roughly even split between Republicans and Democrats among ex-felons who are not Black. 

The population of parolees in California is disproportionately Black and Latino. In 2016, 26% of California’s parole population was Black (even though only 6% of California’s overall population was) and 40% of California’s parole population was Latino. In California, Black voters and Latino voters, according to the California Public Policy Institute, tend to vote Democrat by a significant margin.  

However, most research also suggests that voter turnout amongst parolees would be very low.  The Florida study mentioned above found that, among those eligible to vote, only 16 percent of black ex-felons and 12 percent of all other felons voted in the 2016 election. 

Another study found that only ~13 percent of ex-felons in Iowa, who had their right to vote restored in 2009 and 2010, voted in the 2012 presidential election, much smaller than the ~55% turnout rate observed in the whole electorate that year. 

Given the low turnout typically observed among ex-felons and the Democratic party’s dominance in recent statewide elections – Governor Newsom and Governor Brown won each of the last 3 gubernatorial elections by over 1,000,000 votes – prop 17 would hardly make a dent in statewide election results. Even at the local level, where prop 17 has the potential to be most relevant politically, only a handful of races were decided by less than 10,000 votes in recent years. 

Currently, 19 states allow parolees to vote. The passage of prop 17 would be perhaps the most progressive shift in California’s electoral policy since the state began allowing ex-felons (who had completed their prison sentence/parole) to vote in 1974

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