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Why Are Convicted Felons in Battleground States Being Told They Can't Vote?

In states like Pennsylvania, misinformation by public officials could lead thousands of eligible voters to stay home on November 4th.
 
 
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At the end of the summer, in the wake of the presidential primaries, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania began receiving some alarming phone calls.

According to the callers, county probation and parole officers had been telling some of their clients that as convicted felons they had lost their right to vote. In some cases, the ACLU contends, officers even threatened former offenders with a parole violation if they registered.

The boldness of the apparent intimidation tactic on the part of criminal justice officials is underscored by the fact that the claim simply isn't true. Under Pennsylvania law, felons who have been released from prison -- or who will be freed by the time of the election -- are indeed eligible to register and vote, and, unlike some other states where there is a waiting period, voting rights in the Commonwealth are automatically restored upon release.

Reached for comment, Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said that although he doesn't believe the errors were made out of malice, the fact that they were made at all is indicative of a statewide systemic breakdown.

"Pennsylvania law is clear about ex-felons' right to vote, and parole and probation officials need to be equally clear in giving people accurate information about this important right," Walczak said.

It's been more than eight years since the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down a five-year waiting period from the time of release before ex-felons could vote, yet the ACLU says a number of voter informational Web sites still state that former offenders must wait five years before they can register to vote.

Unfortunately, what happened in Pennsylvania may not be an isolated case. The Commonwealth is just one of several so-called "battleground" states that have changed their laws on felon voting since the 2000 presidential election, and experts say as the November general election approaches, confusion reigns. As a result, voting rights groups say that thousands of eligible voters around the country may be getting the wrong information about whether they can or can't vote this year.

State laws prohibiting convicted felons from voting have been around for more than a hundred years and have only recently begun to be repealed. Critics have long blasted the laws as being unfairly skewed to disenfranchise minority and low-income voters. What's more, it's widely known that felon voting laws have been used in partisan efforts to disenfranchise eligible voters.

In the 2000 presidential election, for instance, thousands of mostly Black voters were purged from election rolls in Florida after being wrongly identified as ex-felons. Writing for The Nation on the eve of the 2004 presidential election, investigative journalist Greg Palast, who had broken the Florida story four years earlier, concluded: "If you're Black, voting in America is a game of chance."

Despite the movement to reform felon voting laws, the Sentencing Project reports there are still an estimated 5.3 million Americans -- or one in 41 adults -- that have currently or permanently lost their voting rights as a result of a felony conviction. Minorities are especially impacted.

"As a result of the high proportion of minorities in the criminal justice system, felony voting restrictions have had a very disproportionate racial impact," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project.

The group says as many as 1.4 million African American men, or 13 percent of all Black men, are disenfranchised - a rate seven times the national average. Given the current rates of incarceration among Black men, three in ten of the next generation of African American males can expect to be disenfranchised at some point in their lives.

According to Erika Wood, deputy director of the Democracy Program at New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice, since 1997, 16 states have reformed their laws to re-enfranchise ex-felons or ease the voting rights restoration process. Most notably, last year, Charlie Crist, the Republican Governor of Florida -- a state that had been known for some of the strictest felon voting laws -- issued new clemency rules ending that state's policy of permanent disenfranchisement for convicted felons.

While Wood applauds the move, she says changing the law is only part of the solution, as evidenced by the recent complaints in Pennsylvania.

"Disenfranchisement under the law is really only half the story; across the country there are hundreds of thousands of eligible voters who have been told they are ineligible either by their probation and parole officers or by election officials," said Wood. "We've documented that in numerous states across the country."

In one recent study, Wood's group found that as much as a third of New York's election officials were erroneously telling people on parole they were not allowed to vote. Like Walczak, Wood attributes the problem to ignorance of the law rather than malice, but she warns that as bad information spreads, it creates a domino effect through minority neighborhoods.

"The officials that are in touch with the public and would-be voters are confused and misinformed on the law and not trained on the law and once they tell somebody that they are not eligible to vote that information can obviously spread through the community and have a ripple effect -- so there really is just massive confusion and misinformation out there that results in what we call 'de facto disenfranchisement,'" Wood explained.

Today, state laws dealing with the voting rights of ex-felons are as varied in number as the jurisdictions that pass them. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia restore voting rights upon release from prison, while 35 states continue to restrict the voting rights of people who are no longer incarcerated.

The most liberal states are Vermont and Maine, where felons don't lose their voting privileges at all and can even vote in jail. The two most restrictive states are Virginia and Kentucky. In those states, convicted felons are disenfranchised for life and can only have their voting rights restored through a pardon by the governor. It's been estimated that as many as one in four African Americans in Kentucky are disenfranchised. The remaining states fall somewhere in between: some have waiting periods, some don't; some disenfranchise for certain crimes and not for others, and in some states a felon's right to vote is predicated on how many convictions he or she has.

"It all over the place," said Brennan Center's Wood. "It's a patchwork across the country."

This has some lawmakers calling for a federal statute to govern ex-felon voting rights in all national elections. Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) are preparing to jointly introduce bills in the Senate and House that would restore voting rights in federal elections to everyone as soon as they are out of prison. The so-called Democracy Restoration Act would come too late to affect voting in the upcoming presidential election, but its supporters say it is an important step.

Meanwhile, as November approaches, groups like the Right to Vote Project -- a joint effort of the ACLU, the Sentencing Project and the Brennan Center -- are working overtime to make sure that everyone that is eligible to vote this year knows that they are. In New York, the ACLU recently launched a comprehensive six-week campaign to educate prospective voters. The group is using bus advertisements, public service announcements and teams of volunteers to bring the word to the streets.

Similar programs have been launched in other states including Tennessee, North Carolina and Nevada.

"People need to know that they have the right to vote and how they can go about registering," said Wood. "Training is absolutely critical as well as a massive public education campaign."

Christopher Moraff is a writer, journalist and photographer and a frequent contributor to In These Times and The American Prospect Online. He also works as a correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and is senior editor of the monthly online political journal Common Sense Magazine. He lives and works in Philadelphia.