Disenfranchised by Misinformation: Many Americans Are Allowed to Vote but Don’t Know It

(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)(Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

Ivy Woolf-Turk spent 3.5 years in the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, before returning to New York, where voting rights are automatically reinstated once a person’s prison and parole sentences are complete.

But Woolf-Turk, now the founder of Project Liberation, which assists women who have been entangled in the criminal legal system, was told the opposite. The prison’s case manager, her counselor, the people in the education department and several correctional officers had all informed her that she had permanently lost the vote. “These are people who should know better,” she told Truthout.

In July 2016 Woolf-Turk completed her post-prison probation. She was initially given no papers and had to track down her letter of discharge. Woolf-Turk’s letter contained no information about restoring her civil rights.

Weeks later, Woolf-Turk agreed to be a witness to her friend’s wedding at City Hall. As they stood in line with other soon-to-be newlyweds, Woolf-Turk saw a display urging people to register to vote. Bored, she read the poster and learned that, even with a felony conviction, she was eligible to vote. “I was shocked,” she recalled. She asked the person at the information table, who confirmed that she did, indeed, have that right and had her fill out a voter registration form. Ten days later, she received her approval notice.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

Over 6 million people nationwide are restricted from voting after being convicted of a felony. Seventy-five percent of those disenfranchised are no longer in jails or prisons. States have varying regulations restricting voting for people behind bars and/or with felony convictions. Some, like Alabama’s law disenfranchising people convicted of felonies “involving moral turpitude” are vague. Even in states where the law is clearer, both misinformation and a lack of information keep many in the dark whether they can ever cast their ballot.

Permission to Vote Does Not Always Equal Access

Even when people know about their ability to vote, casting a ballot may not be easy. Vermont is one of two states that has no voting restrictions for people behind bars. (Maine is the other.) Suzi Wizowaty, the executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, notes that permission to vote may not equate to real access. Vermont has an integrated system, meaning that instead of separate jails and prisons, the state has “facilities” in which everyone is mingled, regardless of whether they are awaiting trial or have already been convicted of a crime. In Wizowaty’s experience, she told Truthout, people incarcerated in Vermont tend to know about their ability to vote. “However, how easy it is to vote is another matter,” she said. She recounted one woman who had requested an absentee ballot. One week later, it had not arrived. She asked the head educator to follow up. He learned that it had been mailed to her a week earlier but was unable to find out what had happened to it.

There are certainly people in Vermont prisons who don’t know they retain the right to vote. One woman, who asked to remain anonymous, has been in the Vermont women’s prison for over 10 years. “For many, many years, I thought I couldn’t vote,” she told Truthout. This year, she learned that she could cast her ballot from behind bars and has since registered and submitted her absentee ballot. “It is a shame I did not realize I could vote until this year,” she reflected.

If people are not registered to vote before their arrest, they must write to the town clerk in the town in which they last lived. “So you have to have had a stable residence and you have to be able to find the address,” Wizowaty explained. But she adds that Will Senning, the staffer in charge of elections at the Secretary of State’s office, has told her that the office does its best to respond helpfully to all requests for assistance, even those that come from people in prison. The office does not track or flag votes cast from inside a facility, however, making it impossible to know how many behind bars exercise that right.

In New York City, those awaiting trial at Rikers Island, the island-jail complex, can also vote (though people cannot vote once convicted and incarcerated in prison). But, noted Lewis Webb, Jr., at the American Friends Service Committee, though there are some posters in the halls and some housing areas inform people, there is little effort to encourage people to register and exercise the right to vote. Furthermore, obtaining a registration form or absentee ballot “is as easy or as difficult as the correctional officer on duty,” Webb told Truthout.

This may change, though perhaps not in time for this year’s election. On October 27, less than two weeks before Election Day, the New York City Council voted to approve a bill requiring the city’s Department of Correction to promote absentee voting among those detained at Rikers Island and the city’s other jails. The bill requires the Department of Correction to provide absentee ballots no later than two weeks before any primary, special election or general election and then get the completed ballots to the Board of Election. The bill is headed to the desk of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has 30 days to sign it into law.

In Pennsylvania, as in the vast majority of states, people who are currently imprisoned for a felony are not allowed to vote. However, those detained while awaiting trial, imprisoned for a misdemeanor, under house arrest or in halfway houses, or released from prison are all allowed to cast their ballots. Malissa Gamble is the founder of The Time is Now to Make a Change, a support center for formerly incarcerated women in Philadelphia. For 10 years, Gamble and other advocates have been registering people to vote inside the city’s jails. But doing so isn’t always easy. Gamble recalled numerous times that she and her team arrived at 7 pm as scheduled, only to be told they must wait for meals and “count times” (in which each person is counted) to end. At times, they’ve had only 15 minutes to register potential voters before the 9 pm lights-out announcement. Despite these obstacles, Gamble estimates that they’ve registered at least 7,000 people over the years. On Election Day, it’s not unusual for her to see some of these same people standing in line at the polls.

However, for those behind bars this coming Tuesday, voting may be a challenge. Those with lower reading comprehensions may have trouble understanding how to fill out the ballot; others may not know how to turn it in so that it is counted.

In Philadelphia, Gamble explained, the Election Board requires ballots to be placed in the ballot box, which is then collected. But people in jail are sometimes told to hand their ballots to staff instead. Whether those ballots make it to the Election Board is unknown.

“There’s a Litany of Barriers that Don’t Need to Be There”

In New York State, a person currently imprisoned or on parole for a felony is not eligible to vote. Once out of prison and off parole, the right to vote is automatically reinstated, but the person must re-register. According to a woman currently imprisoned in New York State, the directive outlining formerly incarcerated people’s right to vote is available in every one of the state’s prison law libraries, but, she admits, “There are many women who do rely on hearsay.”

Misinformation is not limited to women’s prisons. Webb told Truthout that, in his experiences with voter registration, most people still don’t know that they have not lost their right to vote. Many believe that, once convicted of a felony, they permanently lose their right to vote, a belief that’s bolstered by misinformation in the community. “People in the community have been told, ‘If you have a conviction, you can’t vote,’ so family members don’t encourage their loved ones to register and vote.”

This misinformation is not limited to New York. A woman named Tuesday Rocha was released from an Arizona prison on October 5, 2016. During her 1.5 years behind bars, no one told her that she could vote after completing parole. “When you come in, you’re under the assumption that you’ve lost all of your rights,” she told Truthout. “Even if I had heard the rumor [that I could someday regain my vote], there’s nobody there to ask. Your counselors don’t care. It’s hard enough to get them to talk about policy inside the prison.” It was not until she looked through her probation papers that she learned that she could have her vote restored — and that, in Arizona, those convicted of misdemeanors never lost that right. (This does not apply to Rocha, who has a felony conviction.)

“We are told that we have no rights and cannot vote if we are a felon,” another woman, currently imprisoned in Pennsylvania, told Truthout. “Fortunately I know different, however, the prison has a way of contaminating the minds.”

Fear also keeps people from the voter rolls. “It’s a crime to register to vote if you don’t have that right,” Webb explained. This means that, when approached on the street about registering to vote, many err on the side of caution rather than risk arrest for voter fraud.

Another frequent problem occurs when a person who has been in prison attempts to vote. Polling sites have a list of district residents who have been disenfranchised and, not uncommonly, people who have previously been on parole find that their names are still on that list. “It’s the responsibility of the parole officer to make sure the name is removed once their parole has ended,” Webb stated. But that doesn’t always happen. The person can also get a letter from their former parole officer attesting that they have completed their sentences and have been discharged in order to regain their right to vote. “There’s a litany of barriers that don’t need to be there,” he reflected.

Some states require a lengthy bureaucratic process. In Florida, people convicted of a felony must wait seven years after completing their entire sentence, including probation or parole. Once they apply, there’s nothing they can do but wait. Brenda Valencia spent nearly 12 years in prison before returning to Miami. Upon completing her probation, her probation officer handed her a sheaf of discharge papers, including a page that outlined the steps she needed to take if she wanted to restore her civil rights. She filled out the paperwork in 2005; it was only in 2014 that her rights were reinstated. The entire process had taken nine years.

In New York, Webb is hopeful. In 2008, as excitement mounted over the prospect of the country’s first Black president promising hope and change, the American Friends Service Committee registered 1,117 people with felony convictions. Of those, 771 later confirmed that they had voted in the presidential election. Webb anticipates a 15 percent to 20 percent uptick in registration and voting among people with felony convictions given how frequently the election has been in the news. Within the past six weeks, the American Friends Service Committee has registered hundreds of New Yorkers with felony convictions.

Would Votes of People With Felony Convictions Swing a State?

Some states have started easing the barriers to the ballot box. In September, California governor Jerry Brown signed a bill allowing the approximately 50,000 people in county jails for felony convictions to vote. In Virginia, a state in which one in five Black people have been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, Gov. Terry McAuliffe attempted to restore voting rights to 206,000 people via executive order, a move that political opponents decried as attempting to increase Democratic voters. When the state’s Supreme Court ruled that he could only restore rights on a case-by-case basis, he signed papers restoring the rights of nearly 13,000 individuals.

If people with felony convictions voted, would this make a difference in the upcoming election?

A 2002 study said yes, arguing that, if Florida residents disenfranchised because of felonies had been allowed to vote, the state would have gone to Al Gore in the 2000 election. A 2014 study found that people with felony convictions in New York, New Mexico and North Carolina overwhelmingly registered as Democrats.

Valencia, looking forward to casting her ballot in Miami, agrees. She had initially planned to vote Republican, but changed her mind after Trump won the nomination. Despite her personal leanings, she strongly believes that if people currently disenfranchised because of past felonies were allowed to vote, Florida would swing to the Democrats.

Gamble, in Pennsylvania, knows this for a fact. “The majority of people we registered in those jails were Democratic,” she said, adding that Philadelphia alone is home to 400,000 formerly incarcerated people, which would have a drastic impact on local elections as well.