Voter Suppression Gains Momentum
New York - A national coalition of voting rights advocates is calling on public officials to denounce new attempts to suppress the vote in Ohio and across the country. The national Right to Vote Campaign calls on Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell to allow the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) to provide written notification to people on parole that they are eligible to vote under Ohio law. Blackwell's inaction is preventing the voting rights notification of as many as 100,000 potential voters who may have been misinformed of their rights by local Ohio election boards.
Illustrating the extent of this misinformation, the Cincinnati-based Prison Reform Advocacy Center (PRAC) filed suit in federal court yesterday in effort to remedy the disfranchisement of thousands of eligible voters in the Akron area of Summit County. Summit County distributes written notification that Ohio law cancels the voter registration of citizens with felony convictions. Because the letter does not state that according to state law, citizens with felony convictions are eligible to re-register to vote upon release from incarceration, the effect of the notification is to disfranchise eligible Akron voters for life.
Ohio law gives people with felony convictions the right to vote immediately upon release from incarceration, regardless of whether they are on parole, probation, or under community supervision. In August, PRAC filed suit on behalf of two Ohio advocacy groups, CURE-Ohio and the Racial Fairness Project, against Blackwell and the 21 county boards of elections, including Summit, found to have disseminated false information to eligible voters. In order to facilitate settlement of the lawsuit, ODRC voluntarily agreed to immediately begin to notify people of their right to vote as they report to their parole officers.
"Based on that promise, we agreed to dismiss the lawsuit. Now, Secretary Blackwell's lawyer, who has taken over the representation of ODRC, is denying that the case was ever settled," said PRAC's David Singleton, who served as trial counsel for plaintiffs in the class action suit. "One can't help but speculate that, in a close election year and in a battleground state, partisan political considerations might be at the root of this reversal. We hope that is not the case."
"We are deeply disappointed by the Secretary of State's decision to block ODRC from providing the written notice it had agreed to provide," said Singleton. "I urge Blackwell to return to our agreement in good faith and remind him that he is responsible for the electoral interests of all Ohioans."
National voting rights advocates involved with Right to Vote, which has supported PRAC's efforts, note that similar instances suppressing the vote of eligible voters with past felony convictions have been reported nationwide:
1. The Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law documented that over half of New York's 62 boards of elections were refusing to register individuals with felony convictions unless they provided documents that in many cases did not exist and in violation of state law that allows people to vote upon the completion of their sentence, including parole. Probationers are never disfranchised in New York.
2. In Idaho, misinformation from county clerks and election workers has been documented by the Idaho Statesman. In fact, one county clerk admitted to not even knowing the law and as a result gave out misinformation.
3. According to advocates in Louisiana, the registrar of voters for Orleans Parish refused to issue absentee ballots to eligible voters in jail, in violation of the state law.
4. Gov. Ernie Fletcher of Kentucky is blocking the rights restoration of people with felony convictions by requiring the submission of written essays. Because the essays are reminiscent of literacy tests of the Jim Crow era, an editorial in the Lexington Herald-Leader accused Fletcher of being "bogged down in the post-Reconstruction politics of the 19th century."
"These findings underscore what studies have shown for the past several year, that states are not protecting the vote for all citizens," said Robin Templeton, executive director of Right to Vote, "With states like Florida and Kentucky showing their disdain for the public welfare by implementing new barriers to voting, and now this capitulation in Ohio, we need to renew our national focus on the importance of everyone's right to vote in a democracy."
Miles Rapoport, former Connecticut secretary of state and president of Demos, a Right to Vote coalition member, agrees. "States must prioritize educating the public about the right to vote," he says. "In Connecticut, for example, the corrections department is working energetically to inform people completing their sentences of their eligibility to vote using instructional video and written material."
The Right to Vote campaigns calls on all states to take action now to notify millions of eligible citizens of their voting rights before registration deadlines and the general election on Nov. 2.
The Election Protection Coalition has a toll-free number, 1-866-OUR VOTE, for voters to call if they have any questions about their status and their eligibility as voters, as well as any other questions surrounding voting and registration. The coalition has trained lawyers standing by to answer questions and serve as voter advocates.