Ex-Felon Voters Foiled By Confused Officials States 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. Half the election officials interviewed in Colorado didn't know that residents on probation were allowed to vote, for example.
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Ex-Felon Voters Foiled By Confused Officials

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Ex-Felon Voters Foiled By Confused Officials


Ex-Felon Voters Foiled By Confused Officials

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This is Day to Day. I'm Alex Chadwick.


I'm Madeleine Brand. The Arab Gulf states make a lot of money on oil profits. So as our financial crisis spreads around the world, what happens to them? Questions for an Arab money manager, and answers coming up.

CHADWICK: First, with the election only weeks away, more than 5 million Americans are barred from voting because they're convicted felons. And even in those places where felons can legally vote, they may not know how to claim the right. There are different laws. As Day to Day's Alex Cohen reports, even election officials are confused.

ALEX COHEN: Thirty-nine-year-old Alex Friedmann of Memphis has never voted for president.

Mr. ALEX FRIEDMANN (Convicted Felon, Memphis, Tennessee): In 1987, I committed the crimes of armed robbery and assault, attempt to commit murder. I entered the prison system when I was 18.

COHEN: Friedmann was released in 1999 and he finished parole in 2005. Shortly after that, the state of Tennessee passed a complicated law that requires ex-offenders like Friedmann to pay off all restitution fees before registering to vote.

Mr. FRIEDMANN: In order to regain my voting rights in Tennessee, under the law, I had to pay $900.

COHEN: After months of legal wrangling, Friedmann was finally able to register last Friday.

Mr. FRIEDMANN: We have a history-setting presidential election coming up in the United States. It's good to be able to participate in that.

COHEN: But not everyone believes former felons should be able to participate.

Mr. ROGER CLEGG (President and General Counsel, Center for Equal Opportunity): If you are not willing to follow the laws, then you can't claim a right to make the laws for everyone else.

COHEN: Roger Clegg is president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank.

Mr. CLEGG: That's what you do when you vote. You're either making the law directly, if you're voting on a referendum or something like that, or you're making it indirectly by choosing lawmakers.

COHEN: 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.

Ms. RACHEL BLOOM (American Civil Liberties Union): These laws vary from state to state.

COHEN: Rachel Bloom of the ACLU notes that 20 states require a prisoner to complete both parole and probation before voting. And then there's the most lenient end of the spectrum.

Ms. BLOOM: Maine and Vermont are the two states where people can vote while in prison.

COHEN: Bloom says there are also states where laws are murky, like Alabama.

Ms. BLOOM: The law specifically forbids anyone convicted of a crime of moral turpitude from voting. But the problem is that no one quite seems to know what moral turpitude is.

COHEN: The governor's office of Alabama say 480 of the state's 575 felony crimes are ones of moral turpitude, while the Office of the Courts puts the number closer to just 70. Which side prevails could affect thousands of potential votes. And if you're totally confused at this point of the story, well, at least you're not alone, says Erika Wood of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

Ms. ERIKA WOOD (Brennan Center for Justice at New York University): Half the election officials interviewed in Colorado - obviously, an important state this year - did not know that Coloradans on probation could vote.

COHEN: Last week, the Brennan Center, along with the ACLU, released a report showing widespread confusion among election officials.

Ms. WOOD: A third of the election officials in New York, New Jersey and Washington state said that they would require individuals with felony convictions to provide some kind of documentation before allowing them to register to vote, even though that documentation is not required by law and in some cases, particularly here in New York, actually doesn't even exist.

COHEN: Wood says voting shouldn't be a privilege for those fortunate enough to call an informed elections official. Voting, she says, is a basic right.

Ms. WOOD: These are American citizens that are living in the community. They are raising families. They are paying taxes. They are working. They are our neighbors and our community members. And they should have a voice in the way their lives are governed.

COHEN: In Ohio, one group is working to make some of the youngest of those voices heard.

Unidentified Woman: Today, it's a two-step process. First, we register you, and then we help you fill out an absentee ballot application. Now that's not the ballot...

COHEN: This week, volunteers from the Ohio Justice and Policy Center visited the Mohican Juvenile Correctional Facility in the town of Perrysville. They registered young offenders like 18-year-old Kenneth. To protect his identity, the State Department of Youth Services wouldn't let us use Kenneth's last name on air.

Mr. KENNETH (Inmate, Mohican Juvenile Correctional Facility): I committed a crime - well, I pled guilty to a crime: burglary.

COHEN: Though Kenneth considers his acts a crime, the state of Ohio does not because he's a juvenile. That means he's eligible to vote.

Mr. KENNETH: I mean to say, to exercise my right to vote. It's important to vote because my vote will count.

COHEN: To let offenders who don't fall into Ohio's juvenile loophole vote, Senator Russ Feingold introduced new voting rights legislation a few weeks ago. His Democracy Restoration Act would allow all felons who've been released from prison to vote in federal elections. Supporters of the legislation hope to see it passed before the next presidential election. Alex Cohen, NPR News.

CHADWICK: And we'll have more in a moment on Day to Day.

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