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

  • ARIEL WHITE (a1)


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.


Corresponding author

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


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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:



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