This election season, untold numbers of eligible voters are at serious risk of being denied access to the polls. Are unfair and unnecessary voter ID laws to blame? Is it because their houses are under foreclosure and their registrations are being challenged? Yes. But there's more: the poor administration of felony and misdemeanor disfranchisement laws across the country.
Approximately 5.3 million Americans with criminal records are barred, by law, from casting votes. The immoral and undemocratic nature of these disfranchisement laws aside—Brent Staples has a nice treatment of this issue on his blog—their implementation has led to widespread confusion about who is eligible to vote and when. A new report by the ACLU and the Brennan Center for Justice documents the chronic lack of knowledge about these laws among the very people charged with administering them: state elections officials. To add insult to injury, another new report by the ACLU finds that the vast majority of voter registration forms fail to adequately explain state disfranchisement provisions.
The consequence is the mass dissemination of inaccurate information, leading to the de facto disfranchisement of qualified voters. The number of people potentially affected by this problem jumps sharply, as a result, from 5.3 million to 47 million—the number of Americans with criminal records. (Yes, one in six Americans has some sort of criminal record—makes you think differently about what it means to be a "criminal," doesn't it?) Even people without criminal records have the potential to be affected by confusing information, as the voter registration report shows.
This mass confusion is as predictable as it is disturbing. Disfranchisement laws vary widely across the country and are often quite complex, specifying different treatment for people convicted of felonies versus misdemeanors, those with first felony convictions versus multiple felony convictions, individuals with in-state versus out-of-state convictions, people on probation versus parole, etc. Even I have a hard time keeping track of all the different provisions.
So what's the solution? Well, there is a desperate and immediate need for education. Education of elections and criminal justice officials, who should be trained to understand fully their respective state laws and answer questions from voters. Education of people with criminal records, who should receive information about their eligibility to vote when under, and being discharged from, supervision. And education of the public, who should be able to easily access clear and comprehensive information about eligibility through a variety of media platforms.
Or we could just eliminate these laws.