“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.