ACLU-TN Survey Reveals Election Officials Lack Knowledge of Voting Rules

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
September 29, 2008 12:00 am

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Misinformation Could Prevent Some Eligible Voters From Registering By Oct. 6 Deadline

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CONTACT: media@aclu.org

NASHVILLE – The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee (ACLU-TN) today released the results of a statewide survey of election officials which reveals widespread misunderstanding of the laws governing the right to vote of citizens with felony convictions, endangering the voting rights of many in the upcoming presidential election.

The results of the survey, conducted between May and July 2007, indicate that most elections officials do not know or understand the 2006 voter restoration law which dictates when and how people with felony convictions regain their right to vote. Survey results indicate that the TN disenfranchisement law poses far too many administrative burdens which confuse both election officials and individuals eligible to regain their voting rights.

According to Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN Executive Director, “The burdensome eligibility requirements are confusing to local election officials and deter eligible voters from registering. The failure of election officials to fully understand and articulate the law can result in many eligible voters being denied their right to cast a ballot.”

ACLU of Tennessee staff surveyed elections officials in each of the state’s 95 Election Commission offices in an effort to gauge their knowledge of and ability to administer state disenfranchisement policy. According to state law passed in July 2006, people with felony convictions can have their right to vote restored so long as they were not convicted of an exempted crime during certain time periods; have been released from jail or prison and completed all periods of probation or parole; paid all fines, fees and restitution; are current on court-ordered child support payments; and have had a Certificate of Restitution approved by the state Election Commission.

The survey’s results, however, reveal that while the current law is a significant improvement over previous laws, it is still far too complex for election officials to understand fully and to administer correctly. Not a single question asked by ACLU-TN staff regarding the existing law elicited a 100 percent accurate answer from the officials surveyed, and at least 30 percent of the answers to the questions asked were incorrect, incomplete or inaccurate.

There was not one Election Commission office that correctly articulated the law when asked whether people with a felony conviction can register to vote, according to the survey’s results. Thirty-seven percent of election officials surveyed gave partially-correct answers and seven percent gave wholly inaccurate answers or said they did not know current law.

When asked whether people with felony convictions ever regain their right to vote, 99 percent of election officials surveyed responded incorrectly – 86 percent failed to disclose even a single restriction against voting rights being restored, seven percent successfully identified one or two restrictions and six percent gave wholly inaccurate information or indicated that they did not know.

According to the survey’s results, 62 percent of officials surveyed could not provide a complete list of the crimes and dates that prevent people with a felony conviction from having their right to vote restored.

“Existing state law continues to be more of a hindrance than anything else in ensuring that all eligible voters are properly informed of their rights and that no ineligible voters erroneously vote,” Weinberg said. “We need a more streamlined law and state and local election officials need to do a better job of understanding and communicating to Tennesseans what the law is.”

Based on the survey’s results, the ACLU of Tennessee recommends, among other things, mandated training for all local election commission staff, probation and parole staff, and court clerks about the voter restoration procedure and the adoption and implementation of a statewide notification policy that would ensure that the terms of disenfranchisement and the required steps for restoration are effectively communicated to the public.

In addition, ACLU-TN urges the automatic restoration of voting rights for individuals convicted of felonies upon release from prison. According to Weinberg, “This streamlined process would ease the confusion at local election commission offices and support the reintegration of former felons into their communities, which in turn enhances public safety.”

The results of the ACLU of Tennessee’s survey can be found online at: www.aclu-tn.org/pdfs/RTV/FinalRTVSurvey.pdf.

Information about the process for restoration of voting rights can be found at: www.aclu-tn.org/votingrights.htm#resources.

The deadline in Tennessee to reister to vote is October 6. Voter registration forms can be found at: www.state.tn.us/sos/election/registration.htm.

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