Don Blankenship won’t be the next senator from West Virginia. His third-place primary finish behind opponents Evan Jenkins and Patrick Morrisey, combined with the state’s “sore loser” laws, mean he can’t run on a third-party ticket in November.
Like most people who were watching the primary from afar, most of what I knew about Blankenship, other than his ads, was that he had spent a year in prison for his role in a mining accident that killed 29 people. I’d heard him referred to as a felon or an “ex-con” in a number of stories, so I just assumed he was one.
Tuesday night while we were waiting for results from that race to come in, I decided to do a short piece for the FiveThirtyEight election live blog about whether Blankenship would be able to vote for himself. West Virginia, like many states, deprives felons of their right to vote during their incarceration and probation period. I was ready to dive into the finer points of how registration might work for a felon on probation when one of my colleagues pointed out to me that Blankenship was convicted of a misdemeanor, not a felony.
This wasn’t exactly a deep investigative find. It was reported at the time of his conviction (the linked story also mentions the controversy around the verdict), and news coverage suggests that the prosecution didn’t persuade the jury that a felony had been committed.
I’m not a lawyer or an expert on mine safety, and I can’t comment on the appropriateness of the verdict. But I can comment on the political implications of the distinction. A report in 2016 showed that 6.1 million people were denied the right to vote under felony disenfranchisement laws. About half of these people have already completed their sentences. Numerous studies have linked this practice to the overall democratic health of American politics (before writing about the health of American democracy was cool).
Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza found that felony disenfranchisement had likely affected the outcome of several major political races, and refer to the practice as a “democratic contraction.” Not surprisingly, these policies have had a disproportionate effect on African-American populations; in the words of political scientist Khalilah Brown-Dean, “felon disenfranchisement laws present a formidable barrier to African Americans’ full electoral development.” So it matters for electoral politics which crimes are classified as felonies and how verdicts are rendered.
Blankenship’s post-conviction entry into electoral politics is also not typical. Research also shows that contact with the criminal justice system tends to make people less likely to participate in politics (this link is to a study by Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman in which they carefully address other explanations for lower participation). These effects are also present in communities that frequently experience such contact. So while bombastic, defiant politicians like the late Jim Traficant and, yes, Blankenship himself make for interesting headlines, we should remember that the larger impact of the criminal justice system on political participation looks much different.
Many commentators observed the clash between Blankenship’s criminal status and his bid for public office. The lessons here are important but somewhat ambivalent. Research on this topic suggests that jumping to make a clear and indelible distinction between criminal and citizen has real consequences and ought to be reconsidered.
But the fact that Blankenship’s conviction for a horrifying incident left his political rights intact — an advantage not shared by 6.1 million people convicted of felonies and disenfranchised for it — is an element of his story that ought to have received more attention.