17 million Americans have a past felony conviction and are eligible to register to vote right now. Many of them don’t know this. Until very recently, I was one of them. The absence of voting rights education for those with past convictions has been a quietly effective method of voter suppression for decades, and it’s time for that to change.
17 million citizens is equivalent of the populations of New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, combined. This group must navigate their day-to-day knowing that a specter from their past will always be there in some shape or form, even after their proverbial debt to society has been paid.
Most of the restrictions for people with felony convictions are spelled out to avoid confusion — you can’t own a gun and must check the “Yes” box on job applications when asked about prior offenses.
What isn’t clear is whether or not you still have the right to vote, and the efforts to inform this massive segment of our society have ranged from paltry to needlessly vindictive.
After I completed probation, I had no idea if I had the right to vote
In the mid-2000s, I was charged with and convicted of Endangerment, a Class 6 felony in Arizona. I was sentenced in 2004 and by 2006, I had completed that sentence — all jail time served, all fines paid, all probationary requirements satisfied.
I was naive enough to believe that I had put this chapter of my life behind me — a period in which I exhibited very poor judgment and endured the consequences with humility and contrition.
After my time was served and probationary conditions were met, there were zero resources provided to help me understand my voter registration eligibility. Endless internet searches led me to obsolete state and county edicts, laws from other states that were irrelevant, and misinformation of all stripes that yielded only confusion. Whatever quasi-helpful legal advice I found inevitably led to an attorney teasing a paid consult, which wasn’t in the cards for me as a 23-year-old college student.
I also briefly considered taking my chances and attempting to cast a ballot. I had been registered since I turned 18, so I assumed that my name may still be on the voter rolls, but the fear of additional prosecution quickly ended that.
I was right to be concerned. Earlier this year, in Texas, a woman with a prior conviction was sentenced to five years in prison for wrongfully filling out a provisional ballot, which was never even counted. In North Carolina, a dozen citizens (the “Alamance 12”) who attempted to vote in 2016 while on probation or parole have been charged with voting illegally and face up to two years in prison if convicted. That could have easily been me. These dissonant “letter of the law” responses to good faith acts of democracy are wildly inequitable.
States aren’t good about informing people with felony convictions about their voting rights
Felony disenfranchisement laws vary widely by state, and the states with the most confusing laws take no proactive steps to educate the public. When Alabama changed its law last year to effectively re-enfranchise tens of thousands of voters, the secretary of state refused to spend state resources to help educate voters about changes to the law, allowing misinformation and confusion to spread about eligibility.
Most shockingly, several states incorrectly describe their own law on their voter registration forms and then ask the voter to attest to their eligibility under penalty of perjury. Nebraska, for instance, amended their law in 2005 to grant automatic rights restoration for those who had completed their sentence, but neglected to amend the accompanying federal voting form that stated otherwise. Earlier this year, the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center flagged this for election administrators in letters sent to six states with inaccurate or misleading registration forms, and several have taken steps to correct them, including Nebraska.
The problem states should focus on is not further punishing confused voters with convictions, but rather simplifying a baffling maze of laws on the right to vote for that exact group. Intimidating prosecutions like the Alamance 12 and a lack of public education threaten to deter millions of eligible voters from the polls.
In Arizona, my right to vote was fully restored after all obligations related to my sentence had been fulfilled. That was in 2006. After more than a decade of fruitless searching, I found the basic education I had been seeking from a Twitter post referencing voting rights restoration that led me to RestoreYourVote.org. I chose my state and answered a handful of “Yes” or “No” questions, and was told that I could indeed vote.
Because of the lack of available voter education, I lost my chance to vote in the 2008, 2012, and 2016 presidential elections and so many other federal, state, and local elections. But today, I’m eligible. In fact, thanks to Arizona permitting early in-person voting, I made the quick drive to the Mesa Recorder’s Office last week to cast my first ballot since the 2000 presidential election.
I’ve long believed, despite countless opportunities to embrace a more cynical perspective, that government exists to improve the lives of citizens, but those citizens need input for our system to be truly effective. Marginalizing a major swath of our populace, whether by negligence or malice, undermines that and keeps valuable voices on the fringes of society.
Those with past convictions who have completed, or are completing, their legal obligations are US citizens who deserve to know where they stand, and states relying on obfuscation or sheer indifference to deny rights to their constituents is fundamentally wrong. It’s an incredible feeling to be welcomed back to the table of participatory democracy after being told to leave, and I hope many get to share that experience very soon.
It took me 12 years to learn whether I could engage in the most essential of American rights. 17 million others need to know today.
Dennis Eckhoff has lived in Arizona since 1993. He currently lives and works in Tempe as a digital advertising strategist.