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Elections Officials Lack Knowledge Of Voting Rules

ACLU Survey Reveals Elections Officials Lack Knowledge Of Voting Rules (9/17/2008)

Misinformation Could Prevent Some Eligible Voters From Registering By Oct. 4 Deadline

COLUMBIA, SC – The American Civil Liberties Union today released the results of a survey of state elections officials which reveal widespread misunderstanding of the laws governing the right to vote of citizens with criminal records, endangering the voting rights of many in a presidential election year.

"Nearly 1,500 South Carolinians every month complete their sentences, regain their right to vote but generally do not know it," said Laleh Ispahani, Senior Policy Counsel with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program who helped oversee the survey. "This systemic problem is exacerbated when these eligible citizens seek guidance from officials who provide mistaken counsel."

The ACLU surveyed elections officials in each of the state's 46 counties this summer to gauge their knowledge of and ability to administer state disfranchisement policy. In South Carolina, individuals convicted of felonies in state or federal court, or of misdemeanors involving violations of election law, may not vote until they fully complete their sentences. At that point, the right to vote is automatically restored. If convicted of any other misdemeanor, an individual only loses the right to vote while incarcerated.

On one basic eligibility question – whether South Carolina residents with felony records may vote – the average error rate of officials was quite low, at around five percent. But on other basic questions, including whether people with misdemeanor convictions and people with federal and out-of-state felony convictions may vote, the average error rate of officials rose by nearly 10 times, to 48 percent.

According to the survey's results, 61 percent of elections officials answered questions about voting with a misdemeanor wrong, 43 percent responded inaccurately to questions concerning voting with an out-of-state conviction and 41 percent were unsure of or gave entirely incorrect information about the impact that federal felony convictions have on voting. Notably, officials in populous Greenville, Charleston and Lexington Counties were among those who incorrectly answered these questions.

"The failure of elections officials to fully understand the laws regarding the rights of people with criminal records to vote could result in thousands of eligible voters being denied the chance to cast a ballot," said Rachel Bloom, Advocacy Coordinator for the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "The fundamental right of every eligible voter to participate in the political decisions of their community must be protected."

Based on the ACLU's experience conducting similar surveys across the country, the problems encountered in South Carolina strongly suggest that elections officials are not adequately trained on voting rights policies concerning people with criminal records. Among the many illustrations underscoring the need for more training is a Bamberg County elections official who, when asked about the eligibility of a citizen with a federal felony conviction, replied that her two years' experience were insufficient for her to provide an accurate answer. As another example, in response to questions regarding out-of-state offenses and documentation requirements, York and Greenwood County officials said, respectively, "I've never been asked that before" and "I don't know exactly how that works…I've never done it."

Another issue the survey uncovered is the burden most counties place on citizens with criminal records to prove they have completed their sentences before allowing them register to vote. This is not mandated by state law, yet 85 percent of officials surveyed said their practice is to require documentation.

Some of the ACLU's suggested solutions include that the state ensure its elections officials are properly trained, direct counties not to require proof of sentence completion and notify all people when they regain their right to vote.

The results of the ACLU's survey can be found online here


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