Politics

For Former Felons, Voting Rights Could Be a Click Away

Website aims to help millions of new voters register

A new website launched by an organization dedicated to voting rights could to help former felons navigate confusing voting laws in states like Alabama, where December’s special Senate election was decided by 20,000 ballots. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Millions of new voters could register across the country, starting Tuesday, with the launch of an online tool meant to help former felons restore their right to vote.

The Campaign Legal Center’s website, restoreyourvote.org, attempts to guide users through a sometimes confusing jumble of state laws to determine whether past convictions or unpaid fines would keep them from the ballot box.

It is the latest salvo in a growing movement to politically empower formerly incarcerated people, a group that is disproportionately African-American. It is unclear how much of an effect such efforts will have on elections because they are more likely to infuse urban areas that already lean left with more Democratic voters. But organizers have framed the issue as a question of civil rights. 

“There is a lot of misinformation, and the laws can be complicated,” said Blair Bowie, a Campaign Legal Center voting rights fellow. “This certainly is an opportunity for people with convictions to assert their voices in elections.”

Bowie pointed to Alabama, where a beta version of the site launched last year, around the time Democrat Doug Jones won an upset Senate victory over Republican former judge Roy Moore by 20,000 votes. 

The state’s felony voter laws are among the most restrictive in the country, partly due to a statute that prohibits people convicted of crimes of “moral turpitude” from voting. 

Alabama left it to individual clerks to determine who was eligible until 2017, when the governor signed a law that defined morale turpitude as one of 47 crimes, although people convicted of some of them could file petitions to restore their voting rights. Even then, voters and some election officials have remained confused.

One man didn’t understand why he had been turned away from the polls until Bowie looked up his record and found a 30-year-old trafficking conviction, a crime that would prohibit him under the new turpitude statute, she said.

But the man insisted there was a mistake: He had actually gotten his sentence reduced to possession with intent to distribute. She helped him bring documents supporting his case to the county registrar, who restored his voting rights on the spot, she said. 

“He wouldn’t have known that the problem was that he had this trafficking conviction on this record, had he not been able to be informed that it was not disqualifying,” Bowie said. 

The new website asks a series of brief questions — where do you want to register? Have you completed your sentence? Do you have any unpaid fines? It also asks questions specific to the voting laws in each state. In Alabama, for example, it asks users whether they have been convicted of any of the disqualifying felonies. 

At the end, users are either informed that they can register or referred to the next action they need to take, such as contacting their state registrar or connecting with an advocacy group. 

Bowie said the website is the first to compile every state’s laws in one place in a way that is easy to understand.

“We have spent a long time figuring out how the laws work so we can help diagnose people’s paths to restoration,” she said. “Even for people with legal training, the process is not totally clear.”

Organizers from the Campaign Legal Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center, working as the Alabama Voting Rights Project, have been canvassing neighborhoods and conducting legal clinics in the state to help voters understand their rights. The Campaign Legal Center is planning similar drives in Arizona, Nevada and Texas.

Estimates of the number of former felons nationwide are as high as 23 million. While about 6 million are prohibited from voting under state laws, the rest, as many as 17 million, should be able to have their rights restored, Campaign Legal Center representatives said. 

Those ranks include Edith Smith, also of Alabama. Smith hadn’t been able to vote after a 2011 conviction for cashing a fraudulent check, even though she had served her jail sentence and paid a $2,900 fine. The CLC checklist showed she was eligible. So Alabama Voting Rights Project organizer Ellen Boettcher helped her fill out an application to the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles.

A few days ago, Smith said, she received a letter saying she could now vote. 

“I feel better,” she said. “No matter what people have done in their previous time, people can change.”

Next, she said, she would work to get her conviction expunged. 

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