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Pastor Kenneth Glasgow helps Spencer Trawick, an inmate at the Dothan City Jail in Dothan, Ala., fill out a voter registration form in June 2017. CONNOR SHEETS/AL.COM
The last few years have been good for former prisoners hoping to regain the ability to vote. In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued pardonsin May to nearly 25,000 parolees in order to restore their voting rights. In Virginia, in an ongoing effort to get more people to the polling booth, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, have used executive powers to reinstate the rights of approximately 200,000 people with felony records.
And in Florida, where 1.7 million people are banned from voting because of criminal histories, an amendment to the state constitution on the ballot this November would give back the vote to every formerly incarcerated person not convicted of murder or a major sex offense.
But it’s one thing to make it legal for people to vote again, and another to ensure they know about it. Voters and even local officials may not realize what’s changed.
“Implementation is everything when it comes to voting rights,” said Danielle Lang, senior legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a national advocacy group.
Next door to Florida, for example, Republican Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey last year signed a law that should allow more people with criminal records to take part in elections. Under the previous Jim Crow-era system, individual county registrars could block anyone convicted of anything they deemed a “crime of moral turpitude” from voting. Now, only people who have committed one of 47 specific felonies — out of more than 500 — can be denied the vote, and even they can apply to the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles to get it back.
Still, the office of Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill has done little to let ex-prisoners know about the change.
“I don’t see any reason to contact them directly if we’re already reaching the entire population,” Merrill, a Republican, said in an interview. “I don’t care how many we’ve registered who used to be in prison, or how many are between ages 18 and 21, or how many are black, white, international descent — it does not matter to me. We don’t specifically target any single group, because we only have one goal in Alabama, and that is to make sure that every citizen is registered to vote and has a valid photo ID.”
That has meant the new law remains confusing to many Alabamans, including county registrars themselves. False information about certain ex-offenders having to pay fines and fees before getting to vote — what some activists have called a new “poll tax” — also circulated for months.
Voter registration forms continue to include a question about whether the applicant, under penalty of perjury, has ever been convicted of a “disqualifying felony.” That term isn’t defined.
In Virginia, by contrast, the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office has a portal on its website so that ex-prisoners can look up whether they now have the ability to vote.
Even after the state’s top court ruled in 2016 that people with criminal records could not be registered to vote en masse, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson has continued to do so individually. First, she gets a list from the prison system every month of released inmates who have finished their parole and probation requirements. Then her staff vets those ex-offenders with the state police and local jails, to make sure they haven’t been re-arrested.
Finally, each new voter is granted a “restoration of rights” letter, one at a time, with the governor’s signature.
“Telling someone who committed a felony to contact the governor’s office isn’t exactly natural for a lot of them — they don’t feel worthy of it,” Thomasson said. “So we’ve worked on that a lot, to make sure the process isn’t intimidating.”