Courtesy The Brennan Center
Thirty-nine-year-old Alex Friedmann of Memphis has never voted for president.
In 1987, he was convicted of armed robbery and assault with attempt to commit murder. Friedmann served 10 years and finished parole in 2005.
The following year, the state of Tennessee passed a complicated law requiring ex-offenders like Friedmann to pay off all restitution fees before registering to vote. "In order to regain my voting rights in Tennessee," he says, "I had to pay $900."
After months of legal wrangling, Friedmann was finally able to register last Friday. "We have a history-setting presidential election coming up," he says, "It's good to be able to participate."
But come Nov. 4, millions of former felons won't be voting. In the case of 5.3 million of them, legally they can't, because they have been convicted of a crime. In a number of other cases, however, it's simply a matter of incorrect information.
State laws regarding voting rights for ex-offenders are so varied and confusing that even election officials are unsure of the rules, according to a new study by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Researchers found, for example, that half the election officials interviewed in Colorado didn't know that residents on probation were allowed to vote. And in New York, New Jersey and Washington state, officials had created voting requirements that made registering impossible in some cases.
"A third of the election officials said they would require individuals with felony convictions to provide some kind of documentation before allowing them to register to vote," explains the Brennan Center's Erika Wood. "Even though that documentation is not required by law and in some cases, particularly here in New York, actually doesn't even exist!"
Privilege Or Right?
Wood says voting shouldn't be a privilege for those fortunate enough to call an informed elections official — it's a basic right.
"These are American citizens," she says, "They are raising families, paying taxes, working ... they should have a voice in the way our lives are governed."
But others are less convinced.
"If you are not willing to follow the laws," says Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of a conservative think tank called the Center for Equal Opportunity, "then you can't claim a right to make the laws for anyone else. That's what you do when you vote — you're either making the law directly by voting on a referendum or you're making it indirectly by choosing lawmakers."
State laws also reflect varied outlooks on whether felons should be able to participate.
Virginia, where Clegg lives, and Kentucky have the most stringent laws — former felons are permanently barred from voting unless the governor personally restores their rights. Twenty states require a prisoner to complete both parole and probation before voting. In Maine, Vermont and Puerto Rico, however, felons can vote even while in prison.
The real problems arise, says Rachel Bloom of the ACLU, when state laws are murky. For instance, in Alabama the law forbids anyone convicted of committing a crime of moral turpitude to vote.
But "no one quite seems to know what moral turpitude is," she says.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley's administration says 480 of the state's 575 felony crimes are ones of "moral turpitude," while the Administrative Office of the Courts puts the number closer to just 70. Bloom says whichever side prevails could affect thousands of potential votes.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) hopes to cut out the gray area. A few weeks ago, he introduced new legislation called the Democracy Restoration Act. If passed, it would allow all felons who have been released from prison to vote in federal elections.
Supporters of the bill hope it will be passed in time for the presidential elections in 2012.