Our democracy works best when all citizens can vote without barriers. However, too many Americans sit out on elections because of difficult or confusing rules and misinformation about whether jailed voters or voters with felony convictions on their records can vote.
In March, President Biden signed an executive order promising to expand voting access for jailed and formerly incarcerated voters and other historically marginalized groups. Now, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) has sent letters asking that six executive agencies deliver on the White House’s promise to take further steps to dismantle barriers to voting for voters with felony convictions.
These letters highlight how the Executive Office of United States Attorneys (EOUSA), U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), Institute of Museum and Library Services, General Services Administration (GSA), Election Assistance Commission (ECA) and U.S. Marshal Service could provide critical information about the rights restoration process.
Of the 24 million Americans with felony convictions on their records, only around five million are actually disenfranchised under law. But due to the patchwork of laws across various states, misinformation, and a lack of access to authoritative legal information and services, confusion around voting rights after a felony conviction is rampant.
Consequently, especially in states with complex disenfranchisement and reenfranchisement laws, many people with past convictions wrongly believe they cannot vote even when they are eligible.
Stories of rare instances where people have been prosecuted for unknowingly voting while ineligible exacerbate this misconception and intimidate potential voters.
Similarly, the majority of the nearly 700,000 people incarcerated in U.S. jails are eligible to vote; yet the realities of incarceration make doing so difficult or, in some circumstances, impossible.
Barriers for jailed voters include the fact that many jailed voters and election and corrections officials often do not realize that they retain their voting rights. They also include logistical challenges — like access to pens or envelopes for requesting a ballot — and a lack of election infrastructure that can help voters overcome these obstacles.
To ensure jailed and formerly incarcerated voters can make their voices heard in our democracy, it is essential to implement ballot access programs in jails and provide individualized help to people with past convictions in the voting rights restoration process.
All the agencies CLC sent letters to would be well-equipped to enable voters to better navigate the rights restoration process.
The EOUSA is uniquely situated to be able to achieve Biden’s executive order’s goal of promoting access. It could ensure that individuals who are prosecuted under federal law receive at the time of plea negotiation receive both written and oral explanations of the impact on their right to vote.
Meanwhile, the GSA and ECA should modernize the federal government’s voter education website, Vote.gov, to include simple and authoritative tools that allow people with felony convictions to determine their eligibility based on the details of those convictions and the laws of the state that they reside in.
The site could follow the model of CLC’s own RestoreYourVote.org, which has a built-out logic tree of questions for users based on the law of that state.
GSA and ECA should also use the revamped Vote.gov site to provide authoritative, user-friendly information about voting rights restoration in each state and fix inaccuracies in the felony disenfranchisement language previously provided by several states.
Additionally, the U.S. Marshall Service could play a pivotal role in allowing jailed voters to participate. It should create and disseminate guidance and best practices to assist jails in facilitating voting and elections for incarcerated voters.
It should also include in its contracts with all jails a meaningful requirement that the facilities provide access to the ballot for voters in their custody.
The U.S. Marshall Service can also assist with voter education, voter registration and mail voting, foster greater collaboration among jails, community groups and election officials, and hold itself accountable to the goal of increasing access to the ballot for voters in jail by publishing jail voting policies and best practices and tracking data on civic engagement.
Finally, the VA and Institute of Museum and Library Services could help voters by providing up-to-date, accurate information for people that they interact with. A significant number of veterans interact with the criminal legal system, and many turn to librarians to learn more about the rights restoration process in their state.
No citizen should be disenfranchised simply because of misinformation. Federal agencies must do more to support the ability of formerly incarcerated voters to have access to the ballot.