Felons are the Democrats’ newest constituency in the subversive crusade for social justice.
Originally posted at The American Conservative on April 20, 2023
Criminals must be the future of the Democratic Party. Leftist activists are pushing hard to secure their votes. Welcome to the latest front in the ever-evolving war to corrupt American elections.
If letting convicts decide the country’s future sounds too preposterous to be true, then you haven’t been paying attention.
Oregon Democrats are plowing forward with a bill to cease “disenfranchising people convicted of a felony while they’re incarcerated” to “ensure that every voting age citizen in Oregon is guaranteed the right to vote.” In March, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisholm, both Democrats, signed felon voting into law in their respective states.
Illinois and ruby-red Nebraska both have similar proposals on the table. Washington extended the franchise to former convicts ahead of the 2022 midterms. Democrat Gov. Jay Inslee called the measure “expanding our access to democracy.” Three other Democratic bastions—Maine, Vermont, and D.C.—already let “incarcerated persons” vote.
To hear leftists bray, one would think being convicted of a felony is a disability—or worse, a civil rights atrocity. Yet safeguarding elections from lawbreakers is almost as old as the republic. Until recently, practically everyone agreed that it is barbaric to allow individuals who commit violent or otherwise serious crimes to vote, or serve in public office, or carry a gun, for that matter.
But that was before Democrats were determined to “save” democracy from dangerous conservatives by federalizing elections and expanding the electorate. (That’s no exaggeration: The Democrats’ failed 735-page John R. Lewis Act of 2022 would have automatically granted voting rights to felons after they are released, as well as gutted voter-ID laws and enacted automatic voter registration in the states.) With at least 4.6 million potential voters on the line—and perhaps as many as 18 million—no bridge is too far for cynical operatives on the hunt for the next big voting bloc to cement Democratic control in Washington.
A New Electorate
Much of the impetus for felon enfranchisement comes from the Brennan Center for Justice, the source of most of the left’s election “reforms” with support from major progressive foundations. A 2019 Brennan Center report proposing “automatic post-incarceration voting rights restoration” nationwide, for example, was paid for by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, the Ford Foundation, and Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Ideologues cast felon disenfranchisement as either a relic of Jim Crow or colonial-era backwardness, and in either case castigate the practice as shamefully undemocratic. They then suggest re-enfranchisement as the next logical step of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, as if law-abiding black Americans ought to be lumped together with thieves, rapists, and murderers.
But the real appeal of enfranchising felons—flipping red states—is far less noble. Since at least 2010, the left has funneled a fortune into schemes calculated to massively expand the voting electorate in the belief that it will drive Democratic victories, or even establish a permanent Democratic majority.
501(c)(3) tax benefits make nonprofit voter registration three to four times more cost-effective than party-run drives, according to PAC Mind the Gap. Another liberal consultancy, Corridor Partners, gloated in 2015 that it would take $210 million to fund “large-scale, multi-year voter registration programs” that could “fundamentally reshape the electorate in as many as 13 [swing] states” by 2020—paid for by foundations supposedly engaged in charity.
In part this also means defeating voting integrity laws. The Fair Elections Center is a prime example: It routinely sues states into restoring felon voting rights, battles voter ID measures, and runs voter registration drives on hundreds of college campuses in swing states “that will result in higher student voter turnout”—thanks to funding from left-wing foundations.
Put simply, operatives are more interested in ferreting out likely Democratic voters in swing states than they are in convincing existing voters to support far-left candidates. This strategy, cynical as it is, is the secret to the Democratic Party’s massive inroads into once-red states like Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina over the past decade. Expanding the vote to felons is just the next step in the left’s campaign for control of the nation.
Battling “Structural Racism” with “Dark Money”
Many of the recent advances in felon enfranchisement are the result of a carefully coordinated spending strategy devised by its top donor collective, the Democracy Alliance.
The alliance doesn’t spend money itself; instead, it convenes the left’s most influential mega-donors to coordinate their political spending on activist groups working on the latest policy fronts. The goal is to maximize impact while minimizing overlap.
We know from a private 2016 strategy memo that the Democracy Alliance developed a 501(c)(3)–(c)(4) pair of pooled funds dedicated strictly to fueling groups pushing automatic voter registration and felon enfranchisement in target states. That these two policies are linked is revealing. Together they will:
- Add millions of voters to the rolls;
- Permanently shift the responsibility for voter registration to the government;
- Address one of the manifestations of our criminal justice system’s structural racism…
- Dramatically increase the political voice and power of young people, communities of color, women, and low-income citizens [emphasis original]
These pooled funds are housed in two nonprofits run by Arabella Advisors, whose $1.7 billion “dark money” network is the most powerful lobbying force in America. Using Arabella’s nonprofits as a pass-through, Democracy Alliance members could hide their identity while channeling vast sums to far-left advocacy organizations, money ultimately paid out by the Arabella nonprofits, according to IRS Form 990 disclosures.
We might speculate on where some of this funding originated. The pooled funds are overseen by Patricia Bauman, who helped found the Democracy Alliance, and a representative from the Wyss Foundation, whose donor is Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss. Both are major donors to the Arabella network.
It is also worth pointing out that Arabella has its own in-house felon re-enfranchisement group: Secure Democracy USA, which considers the policy akin to early voting, ballot curing, and voting by mail.
Florida’s 2018 felon voting rights restoration campaign offers a snapshot of this campaign in action. The Sunshine State has long been at the top of the Democracy Alliance’s target list, which aimed to add as many as 1.8 million potential new voters to the state’s rolls and so “permanently [transform] the state’s electorate.”
The Democracy Alliance’s weapon of choice was a constitutional amendment bankrolled almost entirely by two groups: Arabella’s Sixteen Thirty Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which together provided 94 percent of the campaign’s $10 million budget. The measure passed in a landslide.
For strategy and mobilization to “get [Florida’s] constitutional amendment on the ballot,” the left turned to America Votes, the self-styled “coordination hub of the progressive community” and a major get-out-the-vote driver.
America Votes in turn partnered with three groups: the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, a North Carolina litigator modeled on the infamous Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC); Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, a California lobbying group that aims to defund the police; and the Florida Restoration Rights Coalition, which served as the campaign’s sympathetic face.
It is worth pointing that the Florida Restoration Rights Coalition (FRRC) today lobbies for waiving some $1 billion in court fees and fines owed by convicted people, who are barred from voting until their debts to society are paid. If that sounds innocuous, consider that in 2020 the coalition reportedly took $16 million from New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg—who devoted $100 million to defeating Trump—to pay the legal debts of felons so they could cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election. To observers, that smelled an awful lot like vote-buying.
That’s just the beginning—FRRC also plans to abolish cash bail, drop mandatory minimum sentencing, and radically transform Florida’s criminal justice system, for which the group was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in March 2023 by the New York law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.
Stroock describes the group as a “grassroots nonprofit,” but in reality FRRC is a front for Tides Advocacy, the 501(c)(4) wing of the California-based Tides Nexus. Tides runs the left’s oldest and second-largest “dark money” network, which hauled in $1.5 billion in 2021 alone—nearly double the total amount raised by the Republican and Democratic National Committees in the 2022 election cycle. Tides specializes in spawning professional activist groups, which operate as part of the network’s nonprofits until spinning off into independent organizations. (People for the American Way began life as a Tides project in the 1980s, for instance.) In the meantime, donations to FRRC benefit Tides Advocacy.
FRRC isn’t a nonprofit and hardly “grassroots.” Prior to moving to Tides, the coalition was spawned by the New York-based American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The D.C.-based Brennan Center provided its “legal, research, and policy expertise.” “Strategy, planning, and outreach” services came from Forward Justice, which aims to flip southern states blue, and the Alliance for Safety and Justice, which helped pass Florida’s 2018 felon enfranchisement amendment.
FRRC’s get-out-the-vote efforts and communications needs were filled by the Louisiana-based Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), anti-“voter suppression” group Faith in Florida, and the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People and Families Movement—itself a front for the fundraising platform Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs. And the Black Women’s Roundtable, a program of the get-out-the-vote National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, provided FRRC’s “leadership training.”
FRRC itself is funded by the usual array of progressive donors: Pierre Omidyar’s Democracy Fund Voice, Wellspring Philanthropy, and the Ford, Marguerite Casey, and Threshold Foundations. The San Francisco Foundation, which bundles grants from local contributors, even boasted that it funded FRRC’s “fines and fees campaign” in 2020, almost certainly referring to the coalition’s alleged vote-buying scheme in the leadup to the November presidential election.
But what about individuals still serving their sentences? Activists at the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) have a plan for them, too.
CLC was created two decades ago with funding from Pew Charitable Trusts to litigate for campaign finance reform (McCain-Feingold) before expanding its scope to fighting voter ID laws and felon re-enfranchisement. It’s now funded by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, Ford Foundation, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, the pass-through NEO Philanthropy, and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Between 2021 and 2022, cryptocurrency fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried also funneled $2.5 million to CLC, funds it has declined to return.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that jailed individuals retain their right to vote. The trick is getting them to cast a ballot in the first place. CLC boasts that it has provided legal support to allied groups suing states into helping the incarcerated to vote from jail (about 750,000 nationwide) by redefining incarceration as a legitimate excuse for obtaining an absentee ballot or even turning jails into polling places.
In 2018, it won a lawsuit forcing Ohio to allow inmates to vote from jail via mail-in ballot in the midterm elections. CLC also takes credit for Massachusetts legislation requiring jails to “actively provide education and assistance [to inmates] throughout the voting process,” a bill squishy Republican Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law less than five months before the 2022 midterms. Partner activists got the District of Columbia to designate the city jail “as a voter registration agency,” requiring staff to “distribute voter registration forms and educational information to voters in jail” and install an in-person polling place for inmates. Chicago activists pushed similar policies in Cook County in 2017, leading to a 40 percent turnout rate among county jail inmates.
In Arizona, the scheme is coupled with calls to end cash bail led by All Voting is Local, a spin-off of the far-left Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights—itself tied through board members to the Democracy Alliance—led by ex-Obama and Clinton presidential campaign staffer Hannah Fried.
As in Florida, All Voting is Local casts its work in Arizona as a grassroots crusade rather than the insider project that it really is. Besides the Leadership Council, the D.C.-based group is aided by the Campaign Legal Center, ACLU, Soros-funded Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the American Constitution Society, a Tides-funded Democracy Alliance affiliate.
Not surprisingly, All Voting is Local ran similar campaigns in 2020 to mobilize the felon and incarcerated vote in Georgia, Nevada, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin—all battleground states targeted by the Trump and Biden campaigns.
Other groups run campaigns to allow prisoners to vote in their home state, rather than the state in which they are incarcerated. Groups like the NAACP call this “prison-based gerrymandering.” The case for ending this practice is hazy. The Census Bureau counts people where they typically “live and sleep” when it takes the census every ten years, which for prison inmates is their place of incarceration. Whether just or not, the left spies electoral opportunity in relocating prisoners’ “home” to the county and state they originally resided in, since that is often a major Democratic city.
According to the Texas Civil Rights Project (a spin-off from Cesar Chavez’s union activism and the ACLU) and Brennan Center, the counties surrounding Houston and Dallas “would likely have received an additional state house seat each if incarcerated people were counted at their homes,” at the expense of “largely rural, white communities where prisons are located” (read: Republican districts).
Conservatives will and should debate the merits of restoring voting rights to felons who’ve served their time in prison. The country’s criminal justice system is far from perfect.
What they shouldn’t do is take their cues for judicial or electoral reforms from the left.
Political activists are concerned with power, not justice, and serve at the behest of shadowy interests with a dark vision for America. “Civil rights” is just window dressing for a cynical ploy to expand the Democratic Party’s voting base, not the legacy of the actual 1960’s civil rights movement. We have seen this before in the debate surrounding slavery reparations, gay marriage, transgenderism, and every other issue the left deems vital to achieving “social justice.” Don’t fall for the same farce again.