“Here’s the simple and undeniable fact: The overwhelming majority of violent criminals are Democrats.”
— Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), interview on the Hugh Hewitt Show, Nov. 30, 2015
This was a startling assertion by the GOP presidential hopeful. He used this “undeniable fact” to explain why Democrats support giving the right to vote to convicted felons — “because the Democrats know convicted felons tend to vote Democrat.” He also added that “the media never reports on any of that, doesn’t want to admit any of that.”
When a politician asserts a fact with such certitude, The Fact Checker is always eager to investigate. What’s the basis for Cruz’s claim?
Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier did not respond to queries, but Cruz’s campaign staff told CNN that he relied on a study that was published in 2014 by the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and written by University of Pennsylvania professor Marc Meredith and assistant Michael Morse.
This study was featured in a brief article that appeared under this headline in the right-leaning Washington Examiner: “Jail survey: 7 in 10 felons register as Democrats.” But as we always warn politicians, you need to dig behind the headlines and news stories and actually read the studies that are being cited. After all, this study was titled, “Do Voting Rights Notification Laws Increase Ex-Felon Turnout?”
From the start, one can see something fishy is going on with Cruz’s claim. The study is a survey of party registration of ex-felons, not people in jail. Moreover, while Cruz spoke of “violent criminals,” not all felonies (such as fraud or drug-related convictions) involve violent acts — and the study did not break down the types of crimes committed by the former prisoners.
The study actually examined a relatively narrow question — whether voter registration and turnout are increased when ex-felons are notified that they can regain the right to vote. The research suggested that notification notices did not increase the turnout of ex-felons, at least in the states that were the subject of the study. (In fact, 60 to 75 percent of ex-felons did not even register to vote.)
And how many states were studied? Just three — New York, New Mexico and North Carolina. So that’s two blue states and one purple state, which is not an especially representative sample of the United States.
In those three states, the party registration of the ex-felons studied was heavily Democratic. But that may have more to do with race than anything else. African Americans vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, and Hispanics also lean toward the Democrats. “About half of the discharged population is black in both New York and North Carolina, with Hispanics making up an additional quarter of the discharged population in New York,” the study noted. (Racial data were not provided for New Mexico, and North Carolina did not break out Hispanics.)
Indeed, a follow-up study by Meredith and Morse looking at Iowa, Maine and Rhode Island found that, in those states, discharged felons are actually more likely to not affiliate with any party than anything else. In Iowa, the unpublished data indicate that only about 12 percent of the discharged population between 2002 and 2012 was convicted of a violent crime, which further demonstrates why Cruz cannot reach such broad conclusions about “violent criminals.”
A 2012 study by Traci Burch, a Northwestern University professor, looked at the registration rates of ex-felons by race in North Carolina and Florida in 2000 and found that while African American ex-felons do overwhelmingly register as Democrats, white ex-felons do not. “The conventional wisdom assumes that in the absence of felon disfranchisement, a large number of ex-felons would have turned out to vote and that this group would have been overwhelmingly Democratic,” Burch wrote. “This paper will show that previous research overestimates the turnout rate of Florida’s ex-felons and underestimates the share of the vote George W. Bush would have won among them.”
A key reason, according to Burch: In Florida, “white men comprised majority of the ex-felon population in 2000 [and] white men overwhelmingly supported Republican presidential candidates in every election except during the Clinton years.”
In other words, when it comes to political beliefs, the race of felons is more of a factor than any crime they committed. (Burch’s findings also suggest that Democrats pushing for ex-felon voting rights are going to be disappointed in the results.)
“While African-Americans are overrepresented in the ex-felon population in every state, their share of the population varies widely across states,” Morse and Meredith noted in a formal response to Cruz. “For example, in Maine, only 6 percent of the ex-felon population we analyzed was black, while in North Carolina, 55 percent was black.”
Racial minorities are significantly overrepresented in the U.S. criminal justice system, note Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen in a 2002 American Sociological Review paper. They also pointed out that white felons tend to come from poor or working-class backgrounds, traditionally also a source of Democratic support.
“Ex-felons’ partisan affiliations vary across states, and I don’t think there’s enough evidence to claim that the national ex-felon population is ‘overwhelmingly Democratic,’ at least in terms of party registration,” wrote Meredith and Morse in response to a query. Cruz is “misinterpreting our research.”
The Pinocchio Test
It is certainly an undeniable fact that a huge percentage of African Americans vote for Democrats, just as white males tend to favor Republicans. But Cruz is wildly off base when he claims that across the United States the “overwhelming majority of violent criminals are Democrats.”
The data that are the source of his statement were based on the party registrations of mostly black and Hispanic prisoners in just three states — and do not make a distinction between violent and nonviolent felons. In other words, the study does not show what Cruz claimed; in fact the authors specifically rejected his statement as a misinterpretation of their findings. He can’t prove what he claims with such great certainty and thus earns Four Pinocchios.
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