If you have ever registered individuals to vote, you’ve likely had people tell you that they’d like to register but can’t because they were incarcerated. As I travel the country educating Americans about felony disfranchisement, I can’t tell you the amount of times folks have said this to me. I listen, ask them where they live, and, in many instances, I get to give them the good news that they are eligible to vote.
When I was in Mississippi, a state that permanently disfranchises individuals convicted of certain crimes from voting, I started talking with a woman who told me her two sons could never vote again. After getting some additional information from her, I told her that, in fact, her two sons were eligible to vote. She grabbed my hand and began to cry.
It’s no surprise that people are confused — every state has a different policy regarding the voter eligibility of people convicted of crimes. In two states — Maine and Vermont — you never lose the right to vote. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Kentucky and Virginia, the two states that still bar all individuals with felony convictions from voting unless the governor personally restores their right to vote. In between is every possible mix of state law.
Because these laws are so varied and complicated, the elections officials charged with implementing them on the ground are confused as well. We’ve interviewed elections officials in over 15 states, and in state after state, local elections officials keep getting things wrong.
We’ve also discovered that voter registration forms don’t always offer a clear and concise answer on eligibility. In 33 states and the District of Columbia, voter registration forms have inaccurate, incomplete and confusing information about registering to vote with a criminal conviction. In four cases, the forms have no information whatsoever. When you consider the fact that 47 million Americans have criminal records, the magnitude of the problem rises.
Some days I get to give out exciting information, but sometimes the news isn’t so good. Just the other day a man in Oklahoma registered to vote after his sentence was suspended because no one ever bothered to tell him that the couldn’t. Now the state wants to prosecute him for voter fraud. How is it that we’ve turned wanting to cast a ballot into a crime?