Last week, the Nevada Secretary of State’s office announced that the state will change their voter registration forms after CLC sent a letter informing the state that their forms may be effectively depriving people with past convictions of their right to vote by failing to provide accurate information about their eligibility. Nevada joins a growing list of states that have pledged to make similar changes to ensure that people with convictions have accurate information about their right to vote. The other states are Delaware, Arizona and Nebraska. All letters were sent the same day, January 31, and Delaware was fastest to respond, saying two days later that they “will be acting on every one of [our] recommendations” to update their forms.
The problem in common with each of these states is that missing or inaccurate information provided by the state make it difficult for people with past convictions to determine their eligibility to vote. Fortunately, this should be an easy fix.
What is the NVRA and where are states falling short?
The purpose of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) is to ease the voter registration process, a goal as relevant today as when it passed in 1993. The NVRA requires states to inform residents of voter eligibility requirements and make sure their forms are up to date.
State compliance with this important law enhances participation in our democracy. It is the responsibility of each state to inform the Election Assistance Commission about changes in the law so the federal instructions can be updated. However, the information available to people with past convictions to determine their eligibility in some states are virtually nonexistent. In other states, the information on registration forms and other resources are simply wrong.
Take Nebraska’s case for example. On paper, their state law since 2005 mandates automatic restoration of voting rights two years after the completion of a citizen’s prison sentence. This was a major improvement over the state’s pre-2005 system, which required an executive pardon. However, eligible voters wouldn’t know this if they read the instructions on the federal form, which currently say that to register to vote in Nebraska, one must “not have been convicted of a felony, or if convicted, have had your civil rights restored.” In good news for confused voters, Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale – who was surprised to learn of the error and said nobody had pointed it out until now – said his office has updated the EAC regarding the error after receiving CLC’s letter. He said he was grateful to learn of the error.
CLC identified six states with incorrect or incomplete instructions while conducting a survey of the voter registration forms used by all 50 states. Tennessee and Maryland have not yet responded to CLC’s call to correct these errors. With the fast approach of the 2018 elections, we cannot afford to have a voter registration system that fails to inform every eligible American of her right to vote.
Read the NVRA letters to the six states selected by CLC, sent on January 31, 2018:
States need to treat voting as a universal right
The bottom line is that if you need a lawyer to figure out whether you can vote, that is a problem your state must fix.
CLC decided to survey the 50 states for NVRA compliance because it is committed to using its legal expertise to ensure that state and federal officials uniformly protect the right to vote and promote voter participation across the United States. It appears that little attention was being paid to the accuracy of these forms. CLC will continue to monitor the accuracy of these forms and ensure the necessary changes are made. After all, as they say, vigilance is the price of liberty.
Citizens with past felony convictions work and pay taxes, and should have a say in deciding their community’s and the nation’s laws. Denying citizens with past felony convictions the right to vote impedes their reintegration into society and creates a permanent class of second-class citizens. It is only fair that citizens with past felony convictions have a chance to participate in making policy decisions that directly impact their lives. Many state laws now reflect this policy of allowing reentering citizens to vote. But re-enfranchised citizens can only exercise their rights if states are providing them with accurate information about their right to vote.