Skip navigation
Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item:
Title: Forming a More Perfect Union: An Analysis of Coalition Building Strategies Used to Promote Felon Voting Rights
Authors: Seabrooks, Terrell
Advisors: Dodd, Lynda
Department: Princeton School of Public and International Affairs
Class Year: 2021
Abstract: In 2020, a record-setting 159.6 million ballots were cast in the Presidential Election. In the United States, more people than ever before exercised their right to democratically and peacefully shape our government and the institutions that control power in our country. Unfortunately, also in 2020, nearly 5.17 million otherwise eligible votes were disallowed because of prior felony convictions. Since 1792, states have implemented various forms of felon disenfranchisement laws – many of which had racist and exclusionary origins. In the past two decades, there have been myriad movements in dozens of states pushing to abolish these restrictive laws. Some have been successful, many have not. This paper seeks to answer the following question: What makes a felon voting restoration movement successful? Loosely speaking this question has a straightforward answer: “having a strong coalition makes a movement successful.” That is why I delved deeper into three sub-questions about coalition building. First, what role should discussions of race and history play in messaging during the movement? Second, should felons be at the forefront of the movement, or does the negative stigma against them cause more harm than good? And finally, which institutions yield the best possibility for substantive reform. Should advocacy focus on convincing the courts and the legislature, or should it bypass politics altogether and appeal directly to the people. To answer these questions and test my initial hypotheses, I chose three states that had recently enacted reforms in the past four years as case studies. In each case study, I sought answers to my proposed questions and evaluated the strategic choices/decisions that each campaign made. Each state was chosen for unique and specific reasons. Florida represents a state where reforms happened in the national spotlight. Activists built a broad, bipartisan coalition in battleground state was under the control of a unified Republican government. Activists appealed directly to the people when rebuffed by the governor and the courts. New Jersey represented a more liberal state, under unified Democrat control. Activists here opted for talking points that did not necessarily do the best job at having broad appeal. Though reforms were eventually pushed through the legislative branch, their strategy failed to build bipartisan support. In Kentucky, we have a series of reforms coming from various governors, each one reversing the policy of his predecessor. Interestingly, though Kentucky is perhaps the most “conservative” of our three chosen states, it is also an example of how felon disenfranchisement is not a purely partisan issue. Ultimately, though there is no one way to build a strong coalition, I was shocked to learn that there is certainly an opportunity to build bipartisan support for felon voting rights, even in extremely conservative states. Furthermore, I learned that though “race-relations” is a divisive issue currently, activists need not shy away from using arguments focused on race and history in their messaging – they just need to know when to use it. Furthermore, I also learned that using the testimonial of felons can help solidify and build support for a movement while overcoming negative stigma. Lastly, it became clear to me that the easiest path to reform might be convincing the electorate rather than pursuing change via the courts or through the political legislative process.
Type of Material: Princeton University Senior Theses
Language: en
Appears in Collections:Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, 1929-2021

Files in This Item:
File Description SizeFormat 
SEABROOKS-TERRELL-THESIS.pdf1.68 MBAdobe PDF    Request a copy

Items in Dataspace are protected by copyright, with all rights reserved, unless otherwise indicated.