WASHINGTON — States have barred 5.3 million Americans from voting because they have criminal records, but many of them have been wrongfully disenfranchised by county election officials who are confused or ill-informed about varying state laws on felons' voting rights, two civil-rights groups reported Wednesday.
Half of the election officials interviewed in Colorado and more than a third of those contacted in New York didn't know that people on probation could vote, said a report by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union. The report was based on interviews with hundreds of local election officials from 2003 to 2008.
It said that half of those interviewed in Arizona didn't know that state law provided a process for restoring the voting rights of people with more than one conviction. A third of the election officials interviewed in Ohio did know that individuals who committed misdemeanors could vote, and a third of those surveyed in New York, New Jersey and Washington state said they'd require special documentation from felons, even though it was not required by law, the report said.
"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.
In a separate report, the Brennan Center said that the names of other eligible voters also are being improperly purged from state voter registration lists, often through computer matches from master lists that are "riddled with errors."
This second report cited the experience of Hilde Stafford, 85, a Wappingers Falls, N.Y., resident whose name was among 23,366 discovered by the Social Security Administration to have been wrongly added to its Death Master File between January 2004 and September 2005.
Erica Wood, deputy director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, said that the impact of erroneous voter registration decisions can be "devastating," because rejected citizens rarely make a second attempt to exercise their rights.
The joint report on disenfranchised felons renewed attention to an issue that triggered a furor in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections in Florida. The Republican-controlled Florida Secretary of State's Office purged tens of thousands of mostly African-American felons from voter-registration lists in 2000, allegedly by performing computer matches with inaccurate or racially discriminatory master lists. An outcry from election watchdogs halted a similar purge in 2004.
State laws on voting by felons vary widely. Maine and Vermont permit them to vote, while some states restore their rights after their release from prison. Kentucky and Virginia permanently ban felons from voting.
A report released last week by the Washington-based Sentencing Project found that 19 states have relaxed felony "disenfranchisement" policies since 1997, including nine states that repealed or amended lifetime prohibitions. For example, Maryland repealed a post-sentence voting ban in 2007 to restore the rights for 52,000 people. Florida eased its requirements for convicts who committed a nonviolent offense to restore their rights.
The report by the Brennan Center and ACLU urged states to better train their election officials on legal standards, eliminate complicated registration paperwork and procedures and ensure that criminal defendants are fully informed about their voting rights.
Last week, two congressional Democrats — Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan — introduced legislation to restore voting rights to all people convicted of a crime, except those still serving a felony sentence.
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