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What's the law: Are released felons allowed to vote?

ASK THIS | March 24, 2006

In most states felons who have served their time are permitted to vote. But a survey in New York shows that one-third of local election boards either don’t know the law or don’t follow it. How about where you live?

By Barry Sussman

Q. What’s the law in your state: Can felons who have served their time vote?

Q. In your state, can individuals on probation vote?

Q. Do elections officials in your area even know what the law is regarding felons and voting?

Two political action groups in New York surveyed all the local election boards in the state and found that more than one-third of them were improperly preventing former prisoners and people on probation from registering and voting.

The survey was conducted late last year and was a follow-up to one done in 2003. In the first survey, according to the report, more than half the counties in the state demanded that ex-felons produce, as a condition for voting registration, documents that were not required by law. In many cases the documents requested did not even exist, the report stated.

The surveys were conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and a group called Demos: A Network for Ideas and Action. I found them referred to on the Web site of  another activist group, The Sentencing Project.

With this New York record in mind, reporters may want to follow up in their own areas—both to see what the law is, and whether election officials know the law and are following it.

In most states, released felons who are no longer on parole or probation may vote; in 11 states a felony conviction can result in lifelong disenfranchisement. A chart and text on the Web site of The Sentencing Project give a state-by-state breakdown.

After the 2003 survey, New York state elections officials informed all local boards that people on probation and felons who had served their time or had been discharged from parole were to be treated no differently than all other citizens. To register they need only fill out a form and sign an affidavit attesting to their age, citizenship and residency.

The most recent survey report, issued in late February, made these points, among others:

  • Twenty-four of New York’s 63 local boards, or 38%, incorrectly responded that individuals on probation are not eligible to vote, or did not know whether they are eligible to vote. As of January 1, 2004, there were 126,138 New Yorkers on probation.
  • Twenty local boards, or 32%, continue to illegally request documentation before allowing individuals with criminal convictions to register to vote. Frequently, the documentation demanded by local boards does not exist, making it impossible for persons with criminal convictions to register, even if they tried to cooperate with the illegal requests.
  • Officials from four counties stated they were familiar with a State Board 2003 memorandum, which informs county boards that people with convictions do not need to provide any documents before registering, but require documentation from such people anyway. 
  • Three New York City offices incorrectly stated that people on probation are ineligible to vote.

In addition, three of New York City’s five boroughs—Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens—illegally continue to require individuals to provide documentation to register. Nearly one-third of New Yorkers sentenced to probation, 50% sentenced to prison, and 61% on parole, live in New York City.

Crazy Quilt
A 40-page paper on the crazy-quilt of voting laws across the U.S., and frequent failure of local officials to either know the laws or administer them correctly. (PDF file)

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