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A ‘Crazy-Quilt’ of Tiny Pieces: State and Local Administration of American Criminal Disenfranchisement Laws

November 01, 2005
Alec C. Ewald
Based on data collected from a 33-state survey, this study demonstrates broad misunderstanding of state laws by state officials and inconsistencies in policies both between and within states, all of which results in widespread errors in the implementation of disenfranchisement.

In 1996, the U.S. Department of Justice described American laws barring people convicted of crime from voting – disenfranchisement law – as “a national crazy-quilt of disqualifications and restoration procedures.”

The D.O.J. had state law in mind. But the pieces of that metaphorical crazy-quilt are not just states, but the counties, cities, towns and parishes within them – the governments that actually run our localized suffrage system. Drawing on surveys and interviews with a nationwide sample of state and local elections officials, this report confirms that because state disenfranchisement laws and practices are so haphazard, a great deal of responsibility for interpreting and implementing disenfranchisement law remains with county and town elections officials – and concludes that these officials, while conscientious, hardworking, and wellintentioned, often lack the information and resources to implement the law fairly and effectively. Across the country, procedures for implementing disenfranchisement law are fraught with error, excessive variation, uncertainty and outright ignorance.

Basic voter eligibility law is formally set at the state level, but in practice, the ability of people convicted of crime to vote often depends on local officials. There are two central reasons for this. First, most disenfranchised people are not in prison: nationwide, about three-quarters of the disenfranchised are on probation or parole, or have completed their sentences entirely (thirty-five percent). Second, most states lack accurate statewide voter rolls, most lack clear statewide rules and procedures for suspending citizens from the rolls, and many have confusing, cumbersome rights-restoration procedures. All this leaves important voter-eligibility decisions in the hands of local registrars.

Particularly since the contested election of 2000, advocates and scholars have battled over the wisdom of disenfranchising people with criminal convictions. But this debate has proceeded in a kind of vacuum, almost entirely ignoring how America’s last surviving formal restriction on the voting rights of adult citizens is actually implemented. Critics and defenders of disenfranchisement have parsed judicial decisions, state and federal statutes, even centuries-old treatises in political theory – but, with a few important exceptions, have not asked the people who run American elections what the policy really “looks like” in practice. Indeed, the New York Times recently editorialized that “there is a stunning lack of information and transparency surrounding felon disenfranchisement across the country.”

This report aims to help remedy this problem, and to improve our understanding of how disenfranchisement and restoration happen – or don’t happen – in twenty-first-century America. It seeks to enable more fair implementation of these laws by state and local authorities, to identify problems in enforcement, and to suggest avenues for reform and further research.

To read the report, download the PDF below.

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