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The Confusion Around Restoring Voting Rights

Kelli Jo Griffin will stand trial next week in Iowa for registering to vote. Unfortunately, Griffin happens to live in a state where such activity is illegal for people like her with a past felony conviction. When she registered to participate in an election last year in her small town of Montrose, she checked on the form that she was not disqualified from voting due to a felony.

Iowa’s former governor Tom Vilsack had restored her voting rights back in 2004, and also signed an executive order that provided automatic rights restoration for all who completed prison sentences and state supervision. But current Iowa governor Terry Branstad rescinded that order on his first day in office in 2011, placing a new permanent voting ban on anyone who’d been convicted of a felony.

A 2008 conviction for delivering drugs landed Griffin with another felony, but Griffin claims she didn’t know that she lost her right to vote again. According to this Associated Press report, there’s been plenty of confusion in Iowa around this issue.

“The policy changes—and inaccuracies in the Secretary of State's list of ineligible felons—has made it difficult for some former offenders to know whether they can vote,” reads the article.

This is not only a problem in Iowa. I reported about how the same kind of confusion was tripping up the formerly incarcerated in Florida in the 2012 presidential elections. A new report from Project Vote on felony disenfranchisement shows that this kind of muddiness around when those with blemished pasts can and can’t vote is widespread. The report, “Restoring Voting Rights for Former Felons,” points to how re-enfranchisement policies “are inconsistent across the 50 states and create confusion among former offenders who wish to regain the right to vote, as well as the officials charged with implementing the laws.”

To that point, the report references a 2004 survey done by Matthew Cardinale, then of The Sentencing Project, that details the impacts of the problem:  

"Cardinale’s survey also revealed surprising information about the education of ex-offenders regarding voting rights. Eighty-six percent of respondents were confused about their voting rights; 90% said they were not told during the pre-incarceration legal process that they may lose their right to vote; and 96% received no information from prison or parole staff regarding re-enfranchisement.  
 

Similarly, a 2005 study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice and Demos found that more than one-third of local election boards in New York State were improperly denying the right to vote to ex-offenders serving terms of parole or probation, and that some of these boards were doing so in conscious violation of state law. Thirty-two percent of boards illegally requested documentation before allowing these individuals to register. Such practices can effectively disenfranchise a person who is legally entitled to vote, and similar practices may exist in other states as well.” 

Only two other states—Kentucky and Florida—have restrictions as tough as Iowa’s on voting for past felons. At one point, Iowa requested a credit check before considering restoring voting rights. But there are at least six other states (Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee) that also make voting life difficult for former felons.

In Tennessee, citizens returning home from prison must pay all back child support arrears, among other things, in order to have their voting rights restored. Many of the states require them to have paid all court fees, costs, fines and restitution before even being considered for restoration. It’s hard to understand how that is not an illegal poll tax for voting.

Also, because of the racial discrimination in who gets convicted (people of color) versus who gets arrested and let off (whites), there are disproportionate number of black and brown Americans impacted by felony disenfranchisement laws. The report mentions a 2008 study that showed that African-American women are disenfranchised at nearly four times the rate of non-African-American women. It really is a travesty that these laws have survived legal challenges focused on the very real claim that they discriminate against voters of color.

But if states must continue to deny voting rights to those who’ve paid their debts to society, the least they could do is notify returning citizens about their voting status. The report recommends that before a person charged with a crime even makes it to court they should be informed about how a felony conviction might harm their civil rights. Such things might be helpful to understand during those plea deal negotiations.

They also recommend that states and counties notify a person after their conviction and sentence of their voting eligibility and providing voter registration assistance for those who are eligible. Some states provide some version of this, but it’s not clear that any of them do so with any vigor. It shouldn’t be an illumination that some hand-holding is required for those leaving prison, especially those who’ve been locked up for a long time. If politicians and law enforcement officials are serious about rehabilitation, public safety and creating more productive members of society then they’d do all they can to help dispel confusion on this serious matter.