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Voting is both a funda­mental right and a civic duty. However, there remains a signi­fic­ant blanket barrier to the fran­chise: 5.3 million Amer­ican citizens are not allowed to vote because of crim­inal convic­tions. As many as four million of these people live, work, and raise famil­ies in our communit­ies, but because of convic­tions in their past they are still denied the right to vote.

State laws vary widely on when voting rights are restored. Maine and Vermont do not deny the fran­chise based on a crim­inal convic­tion; even pris­on­ers may vote there. Kentucky and Virginia are the last two states to continue to perman­ently disen­fran­chise all people with felony convic­tions unless they receive indi­vidual, discre­tion­ary clem­ency from the governor. The remain­ing 46 states fall some­where in between, with the varied state laws form­ing a patch­work across the coun­try. Some states restore voting rights upon release from prison, others upon comple­tion of proba­tion and parole, and others impose wait­ing peri­ods or other contin­gen­cies and categor­ies before restor­ing voting rights.

This disen­fran­chise­ment by law of millions of Amer­ican citizens is only half the story. Across the coun­try, there is persist­ent confu­sion among elec­tion offi­cials about their state’s felony disen­fran­chise­ment policies. Elec­tion offi­cials receive little or no train­ing on these laws, and there is little or no coordin­a­tion or commu­nic­a­tion between elec­tion offices and the crim­inal justice system. These factors, coupled with complex laws and complic­ated regis­tra­tion proced­ures, result in the mass dissem­in­a­tion of inac­cur­ate and mislead­ing inform­a­tion, which in turn leads to the de facto disen­fran­chise­ment of untold hundreds of thou­sands of eligible would-be voters through­out the coun­try.

De facto disen­fran­chise­ment has devast­at­ing long-term effects in communit­ies across the coun­try. Once a single local elec­tion offi­cial misin­forms a citizen that he is not eligible to vote because of a past convic­tion, it is unlikely that citizen will ever follow up or make a second inquiry. Without further public educa­tion or outreach, the citizen will mistakenly believe that he is ineligible to vote for years, decades, or maybe the rest of his life. And that same citizen may pass along that same inac­cur­ate inform­a­tion to his peers, family members, and neigh­bors, creat­ing a last­ing ripple of de facto disen­fran­chise­ment across his community.