As the Nov. 4 election approaches, some fear that unfair confusion could exist about the voting eligibility of people with criminal records.
According to a report released by the Sentencing Project and two studies by the American Civil Liberties Union, all released today, hundreds of thousands of people convicted of crimes might be unfairly discouraged from registering to vote despite having served their sentences and becoming eligible to vote again.
In a conference call with reporters today, Erika Wood, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, which joined the ACLU on a study titled, "De Facto Disenfranchisement," said election officials are rarely given instruction on how to properly handle these now-eligible individuals.
"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,” Wood says. “And it’s unlikely that people who are told they can’t vote one time will make the effort to follow up.”
Wood says there is an “across-the-country need” to educate both people with criminal records and election officials to address the issue.
Wood says people with past convictions need to be better informed about when they lose the right to vote and at what point they become eligible again. She also says they should not have to fill out a form to apply for eligibility; it should be automatic.
Nicole Kief, state strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program who wrote “Voting With A Criminal Record: How Registration Forms Frustrate Democracy,” says another problem facing people with a criminal record are confusing forms that may not make it clear who is eligible to register.
Kief cited one example in South Carolina where the state’s registration application requires applicants to swear, ‘I am not confined in any public prison resulting from a conviction of a crime.” Because the form does not differentiate between felony and misdemeanor convictions, she says some people might be unfairly led to believe that a misdemeanor conviction makes them ineligible.
To address these issues, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced the Democracy Restoration Act last week that would permit citizens to vote in federal elections upon their release from prison.