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Report: Confusion Over Criminals' Voting Rights

Reports Show Widespread Confusion About The Voting Rights Of People With Criminal Records (10/1/2008)

Misinformation Could Disenfranchise Hundreds Of Thousands Of Eligible Voters

NEW YORK – A report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law reveals widespread misunderstanding among state elections officials of laws governing the right to vote of citizens with felony convictions.

A second ACLU report, also released today, finds that voter registration forms in states across the country fail to clearly explain the eligibility of voters with criminal records.

Both reports highlight widespread problems that endanger the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of eligible voters nationally in a presidential election year.

"Unless citizens receive accurate information about their voting rights from those sources where they should be able to get it, large swaths of eligible voters stand to be denied their rightful access to the voting booth," said Laleh Ispahani, Senior Policy Counsel in the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "The fundamental right of every eligible voter to participate in the political decisions of their communities must be protected."

"De Facto Disenfranchisement," co-authored by the ACLU and the Brennan Center for Justice, compares the actual eligibility laws in 15 states with responses to eligibility-related questions from county election officials in those states.

This report identifies widespread confusion over when and how voting rights are restored, whether people with out-of-state or federal convictions can vote, and voter registration procedures for those who regain their eligibility.

Some of the more alarming findings in "De Facto Disenfranchisement" come from states that could prove to be pivotal in this November's presidential election. In Ohio, for example, 30 percent of elections officials did not know if individuals with misdemeanor convictions could vote – and they can. And more than half of the elections officials interviewed in Colorado – a state where 46,000 people are currently on probation – did not know that people on probation could vote.

The ACLU's other report, "Voting With a Criminal Record: How Registration Forms Frustrate Democracy," shows how voter registration forms – a primary source of information about voter eligibility for potential voters – often provide inaccurate, incomplete or misleading information about whether individuals with criminal records are eligible to vote.

"For our democracy to function properly and effectively, everyone who has the right to vote should be given the chance to cast a ballot," said Erika Wood, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. "It is unconscionable to allow a core constitutional value to be sacrificed because of misinformation."

5.3 million American citizens are ineligible to vote because of criminal convictions. As many as 4 million of these people are out of prison – living, working, raising families in the community – yet cannot vote by law because of past convictions.

The reports make clear, however, that this is only half the story. Untold hundreds of thousands of additional voters are discouraged from registering and voting because they receive incorrect or misleading information – or no information at all – from elections and criminal justice officials and voter registration forms.

"The jumble of registration rules – and election officials' understandable confusion about them – contributes to a disturbing national trend towards the de facto disenfranchisement of people with criminal convictions," said Wood. "The laws are varied and complex, election officials often receive no training in them and there is little coordination with the criminal justice system. As a result, Americans who are eligible to vote are getting cut from the franchise at a time when voter participation and enthusiasm is going through the roof."

The Brennan Center and the ACLU urge regular trainings of elections and criminal justice officials and dissemination of clear and accurate information to the public, beginning immediately – before October registration deadlines. Both reports also call for clearer laws that provide swift restoration of voting rights as soon as people are released from prison.


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