Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-888d5979f-ts5rl Total loading time: 0.406 Render date: 2021-10-25T18:13:29.743Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true, "newUsageEvents": true }

Misdemeanor Disenfranchisement? The Demobilizing Effects of Brief Jail Spells on Potential Voters

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 February 2019

*Ariel White, Assistant Professor of Political Science, MIT,


This paper presents new causal estimates of incarceration’s effect on voting, using administrative data on criminal sentencing and voter turnout. I use the random case assignment process of a major county court system as a source of exogenous variation in the sentencing of misdemeanor cases. Focusing on misdemeanor defendants allows for generalization to a large population, as such cases are very common. Among first-time misdemeanor defendants, I find evidence that receiving a short jail sentence decreases voting in the next election by several percentage points. Results differ starkly by race. White defendants show no demobilization, while Black defendants show substantial turnout decreases due to jail time. Evidence from pre-arrest voter histories suggest that this difference could be due to racial differences in exposure to arrest. These results paint a picture of large-scale, racially-disparate voter demobilization in the wake of incarceration.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2019 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


I thank Adam Berinsky, Matt Blackwell, Ryan Enos, Julie Faller, Claudine Gay, Alan Gerber, Jennifer Hochschild, Greg Huber, Connor Huff, Gary King, Christopher Lucas, Marc Meredith, Michael Morse, Noah Nathan, Rob Schub, Anton Strezhnev, Kris-Stella Trump, and the participants of the Harvard Experiments Working Group and the Harvard American Politics Research Workshop, conference and seminar participants at Boston University, Columbia, Dartmouth, Georgetown, NYU, MIT, Penn State, Princeton, Stanford, SUNY Albany, the Harris School, UCLA, UCSD, University of Rochester, Vanderbilt, and Yale, as well as several anonymous reviewers, for helpful comments. This research has been supported by the Center for American Political Studies and the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard. Replication files are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse:


Angrist, Joshua D., Imbens, Guido W., and Rubin, Donald B.. 1996. “Identification of Causal Effects Using Instrumental Variables.” Journal of the American Statistical Association 91 (434): 444–55.10.1080/01621459.1996.10476902CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Antonovics, Kate, and Knight, Brian. 2009. “A New Look at Racial Profiling: Evidence from the Boston Police Department.” The Review of Economics and Statistics 91 (1): 163–77.10.1162/rest.91.1.163CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Beckett, Katherine, Nyrop, Kris, and Pfingst, Lori. 2006. “Race, Drugs, and Policing: Understanding Disparities in Drug Delivery Arrests.” Criminology 44 (1): 105–37.10.1111/j.1745-9125.2006.00044.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Boruchowitz, Robert, Brink, Malia, and Dimino, Maureen. 2009. “Minor Crimes, Massive Waste: The Terrible Toll of America’s Broken Misdemeanor Courts.” URL: Scholar
Brayne, Sarah. 2014. “Surveillance and System Avoidance: Criminal Justice Contact and Institutional Attachment.” American Sociological Review 79 (3): 367–91.10.1177/0003122414530398CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bruch, Sarah, Ferree, Myra, and Soss, Joe. 2010. “From Policy to Polity: Democracy, Paternalism, and the Incorporation of Disadvantaged Citizens.” American Sociological Review 75 (2): 205–26.10.1177/0003122410363563CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Brunson, Rod, and Miller, Jody. 2006. “Young Black Men and Urban Policing in the United States.” British Journal of Criminology 46 (4): 613–40.10.1093/bjc/azi093CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Burch, Traci. 2013. Trading Democracy for Justice: Criminal Convictions and the Decline of Neighborhood Political Participation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.10.7208/chicago/9780226065090.001.0001CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Drucker, Ernest, and Barreras, Ricardo. 2005. Studies of Voting Behavior and Felony Disenfranchisement Among Individuals in the Criminal Justice System in New York, Connecticut, and Ohio. Report from The Sentencing Project.Google Scholar
Eckhouse, Laurel. 2018. “Everyday Risk: Disparate Exposure and Racial Inequalities in Police Violence.” Working Paper. Scholar
Fagan, Jeffrey, and Meares, Tracey L.. 2008. “Punishment, Deterrence and Social Control: The Paradox of Punishment in Minority Communities.” Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law 6: 173–4.Google Scholar
Fairdosi, Amir. 2009. “Arrested Development: The Effects of Criminal Justice Supervision on Political Efficacy.” URL: Scholar
Gelman, Andrew, Fagan, Jeffrey and Kiss, Alex. 2007. “An Analysis of the New York City Police Department’s Stop-and-frisk Policy in the Context of Claims of Racial Bias.” Journal of the American Statistical Association 102 (479): 813–23.10.1198/016214506000001040CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gerber, Alan, Huber, Gregory, Meredith, Marc, Biggers, Daniel, and Hendry, David. 2017. “Does Incarceration Reduce Voting? Evidence about the Political Consequences of Spending Time in Prison.” The Journal of Politics 79 (4): 1130–46.10.1086/692670CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Golub, Andrew, Johnson, Bruce D. and Dunlap, Eloise. 2007. “The Race/ethnicity Disparity in Misdemeanor Marijuana Arrests in New York City.” Criminology & Public Policy 6 (1): 131–64.10.1111/j.1745-9133.2007.00426.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Green, Donald P., and Winik, Daniel. 2010. “Using Random Judge Assignments to Estimate the Effects of Incarceration and Probation on Recidivism Among Drug Offenders.” Criminology 48 (2): 357–87.10.1111/j.1745-9125.2010.00189.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Griffin, John, and Newman, Brian. 2005. “Are Voters Better Represented?The Journal of Politics 67 (4): 1206–27.10.1111/j.1468-2508.2005.00357.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Haselswerdt, Michael. 2009. “Con Job: An Estimate of Ex-felon Voter Turnout Using Document-Based Data.” Social Science Quarterly 90 (2): 262–73.10.1111/j.1540-6237.2009.00616.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hjalmarsson, Randi, and Lopez, Mark. 2010. “The Voting Behavior of Young Disenfranchised Felons: Would They Vote if They Could?American Law and Economics Review 12 (2): 356–93.10.1093/aler/ahq004CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Howell, K. Babe. 2009. “Broken Lives from Broken Windows: The Hidden Costs of Aggressive Order-Maintenance Policing.” New York University Review of Law & Social Change 33: 271329.Google Scholar
Hurwitz, Jon, and Peffley, Mark. 2005. “Explaining the Great Racial Divide: Perceptions of Fairness in the U.S. Criminal Justice System.” The Journal of Politics 67 (3): 762–83.10.1111/j.1468-2508.2005.00338.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Irwin, John. 1985. The Jail: Managing the Underclass in American Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Kling, Jeffrey R. 2006. “Incarceration Length, Employment, and Earnings.” The American Economic Review 96 (3): 863–76.10.1257/aer.96.3.863CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kohler-Hausmann, Issa. 2018. Misdemeanorland: Criminal Courts and Social Control in an Age of Broken Windows Policing. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Loeffler, Charles E. 2013. “Does Imprisonment Alter the Life Course? Evidence on Crime and Employment from a Natural Experiment.” Criminology 51 (1): 137–66.10.1111/1745-9125.12000CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McKenzie, Wayne. 2009. “Racial Disparities in the Criminal justice System (Testimony).” Scholar
Meehan, Albert, and Ponder, Michael. 2002. “Race and Place: The Ecology of Racial Profiling African American Motorists.” Justice Quarterly 19 (3): 399430.10.1080/07418820200095291CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Meredith, Marc, and Morse, Michael. 2014. “Do Voting Rights Notification Laws Increase Ex-felon Turnout?The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 651 (1): 220–49.10.1177/0002716213502931CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Meredith, Marc, and Morse, Michael. 2015. “The Politics of the Restoration of Ex-felon Voting Rights: The Case of Iowa.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 10 (1): 41100.10.1561/100.00013026CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Miles, Thomas J. 2004. “Felon Disenfranchisement and Voter Turnout.” Journal of Legal Studies 33: 85.10.1086/381290CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mueller-Smith, Michael. 2018. “The Criminal and Labor Market Impacts of Incarceration.” URL: Scholar
Nagin, Daniel S., and Snodgrass, G. Matthew. 2013. “The Effect of Incarceration on Re-offending: Evidence from a Natural experiment in Pennsylvania.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 29 (4): 601–42.10.1007/s10940-012-9191-9CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Natapoff, Alexandra. 2011. “Misdemeanors.” Southern California Law Review 85: 101–63.Google Scholar
Noonan, Margaret, and Ginder, Scott. 2013. “Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)—Mortality in Local Jails and State Prisons, 2000–2011—Statistical Tables.”Google Scholar
Pettit, Becky, and Western, Bruce. 2004. “Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course.” American Sociological Review 69 (2): 151–69.10.1177/000312240406900201CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Pierson, Paul. 1993. “When Effect Becomes Cause: Policy Feedback and Political Change.” World Politics 45 (4): 595628.10.2307/2950710CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rios, Victor. 2011. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
Roberts, Jenny. 2011. “Why Misdemeanors Matter: Defining Effective Advocacy in the Lower Criminal Courts.” UC Davis Law Review 45: 277372.Google Scholar
Rules of Court, Harris County Criminal Courts at Law. 2013.Google Scholar
Soss, Joe. 1999. “Lessons of Welfare: Policy Design, Political Learning, and Political Action.” American Political Science Review 93 (2): 363–80.10.2307/2585401CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Spohn, Cassia. 2000. “Thirty Years of Sentencing Reform: The Quest for a Racially Neutral Sentencing Process.” In Criminal Justice 2000, Volume 3: Policies, Processes, and Decisions of the Criminal Justice System, ed. Horney, Julie. National Institute of Justice, Washington, D.C.: 427501.Google Scholar
Stevenson, Megan, and Mayson, Sandra. 2017. “The Scale of Misdemeanor Justice.” Boston University Law Review 98: 101–46.Google Scholar
Stock, James, Wright, Jonathan, and Yogo, Motohiro. 2002. “A Survey of Weak Instruments and Weak Identification in Generalized Method of Moments.” Journal of Business & Economic Statistics 20 (4): 518–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Testa, Paul. 2016. “Contact with the Criminal Justice System and Political Participation.” URL: Scholar
The Sentencing Project. 2013. “Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer.” URL: Disenfranchisement Primer.pdf.Google Scholar
Turney, Kristin. 2013. “Incarceration and Social Inequality: Challenges and Directions for Future Research.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 651 (1): 97101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tyler, Tom R. 2001. “Public Trust and Confidence in Legal Authorities: What Do Majority and Minority Group Members Want from the Law and Legal Institutions?Behavioral Sciences & the Law 19 (2): 215–35.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Verba, Sidney, Schlozman, Kay, and Brady, Henry. 1995. Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Walker, Hannah Lynn. 2016. “Mobilized by Injustice: Criminal Justice Contact, Political Participation and Race.” PhD thesis. Seattle, WA: University of Washington.Google Scholar
Weaver, Vesla, and Lerman, Amy. 2010. “Political Consequences of the Carceral State.” American Political Science Review 104 (04): 817–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Weaver, Vesla, and Lerman, Amy. 2014. Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Western, Bruce. 2006. Punishment and Inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
Supplementary material: PDF

White supplementary material

White supplementary material 1

Download White supplementary material(PDF)
Supplementary material: Link

White supplementary material

Cited by

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Misdemeanor Disenfranchisement? The Demobilizing Effects of Brief Jail Spells on Potential Voters
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Misdemeanor Disenfranchisement? The Demobilizing Effects of Brief Jail Spells on Potential Voters
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Misdemeanor Disenfranchisement? The Demobilizing Effects of Brief Jail Spells on Potential Voters
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *