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Reports Show Widespread Confusion About the Voting Rights of People with Criminal Records

Misunderstanding of laws by elections officials could disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of eligible voters.

October 1, 2008

Misinformation Could Disenfranchise Hundreds Of Thousands Of Eligible Voters

CONTACT: Will Matthews, ACLU. (212) 549–2582 or 2666;
Susan Lehman, Brennan Center for Justice, (212) 998–6318;
Tim Bradley, BerlinRosen Public Affairs, (646) 452–5637;

Teleconference for reporters: Wednesday, Oct. 1, 11 a.m. To join, call 877–567–1262; access code 423033.

NEW YORK – A report released by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law reveals widespread misunderstanding among state election officials of laws governing the right to vote of citizens with felony convictions.

A second ACLU report, also released today, finds that voter registration forms in states across the country fail to clearly explain the eligibility of voters with criminal records.

Both reports reveal widespread problems that endanger the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of eligible voters in a presidential election year.

“Unless citizens receive accurate information about their voting rights from those sources where they should be able to get it, large swaths of eligible voters stand to be denied their rightful access to the voting booth,” said Laleh Ispahani, Senior Policy Counsel in the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “The fundamental right of every eligible voter to participate in the political decisions of their communities must be protected.”

5.3 million American citizens are ineligible to vote because of criminal convictions. As many as 4 million of these people are out of prison—living, working, raising families in the community—yet cannot vote by law because of past convictions.

The reports make it clear, however, that this is only half the story: untold hundreds of thousands of additional voters are discouraged from registering and voting because they receive incorrect or misleading information – or no information at all—from elections and criminal justice officials and voter registration forms.

“The jumble of registration rules—and election official’s understandable confusion about them—contributes to a disturbing national trend towards the de facto disenfranchisement of people with criminal convictions,” said Erika Wood, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. “The laws are varied and complex, election officials often receive no training in them, and there is little coordination with the criminal justice system. As a result, Americans who are eligible to vote are getting cut from the franchise at a time when voter participation and enthusiasm is going through the roof.”

“De Facto Disenfranchisement,” co-authored by the ACLU and the Brennan Center for Justice, compares the actual eligibility laws in 15 states with responses to eligibility-related questions from county election officials in those states.

This report identifies widespread confusion over when and how voting rights are restored, whether people with out-of-state or federal convictions can vote, and voter registration procedures for those who regain their eligibility.

Some of the more alarming findings in “De facto Disenfranchisement” come from states that could prove to be pivotal in this November’s presidential election. In Ohio, for example, 30 percent of elections officials did not know if individuals with misdemeanor convictions could vote – and they can. And more than half of the elections officials interviewed in Colorado—a state where 46,000 people are currently on probation—did not know that people on probation could vote.

The ACLU report “Voting With a Criminal Record: How Registration Forms Frustrate Democracy” shows how voter registration forms—a primary source of information about voter eligibility for potential voters—often provide inaccurate, incomplete or misleading information about whether individuals with criminal records are eligible to vote.

“For our democracy to function properly and effectively, everyone who has the right to vote should be given the chance to cast a ballot,” said Wood. “It is unconscionable to allow a core constitutional value to be sacrificed because of misinformation.”

The Brennan Center and the ACLU urge regular trainings of elections and criminal justice officials and dissemination of clear and accurate information to the public, beginning immediately—before October registration deadlines. Both reports also call for clearer laws that provide swift restoration of voting rights as soon as people are released from prison.

Echoing this recommendation, the Democracy Restoration Act was introduced in Congress last week. The bill, sponsored by Senator Russ Feingold and Representative John Conyers, would permit citizens to vote in federal elections upon their release from prison.

A teleconference for reporters to discuss the two reports, as well as The Sentencing Project’s recent report “Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform” will be held today at 11 a.m. The call-in number is: 877–567–1262. The participant access code is 423033.

A copy of “De Facto Disenfranchisement” can be found here.

A copy of “Voting With a Criminal Record: How Registration Forms Frustrate Democracy” can be found at:

Additional information about the ACLU’s work on felony disenfranchisement can be found online at:

Additional information about the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School can be found online at: