Get Out the Vote; There's Still Time

As a new report points out, unfortunately a significant barrier to voting persists for a large group of eligible voters—elections officials across the country continue to give incorrect information about voter eligibility for people with criminal convictions. However....

October 9, 2008

"This is the most
important election you will ever, ever have voted in, any of you, since 1932," stated Vice-Presidential nominee Joe Biden during the Vice Presidential debate
last week. Perhaps more than any in recent history, this year reminds us why
the right to vote matters. But as a new
report
by the Brennan Center and ACLU points out, unfortunately a significant barrier to voting persists for a
large group of eligible voters—elections officials across the country
continue to give incorrect information about voter eligibility for people with
criminal convictions.

Appropriately titled De
Facto Disenfranchisement,
the Brennan Center and ACLU report documents
interviews conducted with hundreds of local elections officials in 15 states to
determine how well they know their respective state felony disenfranchisement
policies. The results are eye-opening
and not very reassuring. Half the election officials interviewed in Colorado did not know that Coloradans on
probation could vote, in a state where 46,000 people are currently on
probation. Half the officials interviewed in Arizona did not know that their state law
provides a process for people with more than one conviction to have their
voting rights restored.  Such widespread confusion
among election officials could result in the de facto disenfranchisement of
untold hundreds of thousand of eligible voters on Election Day.

But I am an optimist. Despite recent deadlines, in 29
states
there is still time to
get the correct information out there and ensure eligible voters can and do exercise their right to vote.

What can be done? For
the states with registration
deadlines just a few days away, there is an immediate
need for education
for local elections officials.  Education or outreach is the only
way we can correct the misinformation and inform citizens that in fact they are eligible to vote even if they've
been told they are not.  Now is the time to
ensure that all citizens can exercise their fundamental rights as
Americans. 

Looking forward
provides more opportunity for reform, and more reason for optimism.  Rejected
citizens rarely
make
a second attempt to find out about their voter eligibility.  Receiving wrong information could discourage
people not only from voting in this election, but in future elections as well.  But a few common sense policy
initiatives
, like simplifying the law so all states restore voting rights
to people automatically as soon as they are released from prison could prevent
persistent confusion. In fact, Senator Feingold (D-WI) and Representative
Conyers (D-MI) recently introduced the
Democracy Restoration Act
to do just that.

De Facto Disenfranchisement also recommends
regular training of election officials and criminal justice officials on the
law; notice provisions so that ex-offenders are familiar with their rights; and
information sharing among criminal justice and election agencies.  There is still hope, and for November, there
is still time.