Crystal Mason, a 43-year-old Texas mom, is in prison because she voted in 2016. Until a local prosecutor charged her with a crime, she had no idea she had done something illegal.
Mason voted while she was still on probation for a federal felony, which is illegal in Texas. And even though she says no one told her she was ineligible or stopped her from voting at the polls, she was still sentenced to five years in prison for voting.
While Mason’s case was ongoing over the summer, a local prosecutor in North Carolina went after 12 people with felony convictions who had unknowingly illegally voted while on probation. Ultimately, many of them reached settlements with the prosecutor.
Both cases underscore just how difficult it can be for felons to figure out if they can vote once they leave prison.
And their numbers are significant.
The most recent estimates, from 2010, showed there were at least 19 million people with a felony conviction in America. That number includes 6 million people who are legally barred from voting in 48 states. That means there are around 13 million people who are eligible to vote but might be confused about whether or not they’re able to, according to Chris Uggen, a professor at the University of Minnesota and a co-author of Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy.
In November, millions of voters like Mason who have a felony conviction may be equally confused as to whether they’re eligible to head to the polls. They face a complicated web of policies and the confusion and fear of getting it wrong often keeps eligible voters from casting a ballot.
Two states allow felons to vote in prison, while four other states permanently disenfranchise people with felony convictions. Some states automatically restore voting rights when someone is released from prison. Others require people to complete their sentences entirely, including probation and parole, before they can vote again.
Even within a single state, the rules can be complicated, contingent on things like whether someone has repaid fines and fees as well as the date and type of crime they were charged with.
Alabama, for example, has prohibited people convicted of crimes of “moral turpitude” from voting since the turn of the 20th century. But until last year, the state never explicitly said which crimes amounted to ones of “moral turpitude,” giving local election officials wide discretion to block people from voting because of different crimes.
Facing a lawsuit, lawmakers passed a law setting out a few dozen crimes that cause people to lose their voting rights. After the state’s top election official said he wouldn’t do anything to help people understand if they were eligible to vote, organizers have set up clinics to help individuals regain their voting rights.
Marc Mauer, the executive director of The Sentencing Project, said there were few jurisdictions where there was a “systemic” effort to inform people convicted of felonies of their voting rights. Judges are unlikely to tell people about the conditions necessary for regaining the right to vote and there can be poor training among corrections officials.
“I couldn’t guess, but it’s quite likely that the number who in practice are disenfranchised is considerably higher just because of this lack of information about their rights too,” Mauer said.
“It’s quite likely that the number who in practice are disenfranchised is considerably higher just because of this lack of information about their rights too.””
Several states adopted policies disenfranchising criminals around the time of the Civil War as a way of keeping African-Americans from the ballot box. Today, it’s a policy that continues to disproportionately affect African-Americans, who are four times more likely to lose their voting rights than their non-black counterparts, according to a 2016 estimate from The Sentencing Project.
In 1974, the Supreme Court said the 14th Amendment gave states broad discretion to disenfranchise criminals. The court noted that the amendment specifically excludes people who participate “in rebellion, or other crime” from voting and that states did not have to justify a restriction on criminals’ voting rights. The decision affirmed the ability of states to disenfranchise criminals in whatever way they saw fit.
That discretion can lead to muddled policies. Bowie also pointed to Nevada as one of the states with the most confusing laws dealing with felon disenfranchisement.
The state automatically restores voting rights to people who meet certain conditions once they complete probation and parole but not to those who have committed certain felonies. A different set of requirements also applies to people convicted of a felony before July 1, 2003. If all of that isn’t confusing enough, a felon who wants to register to vote has to present a certificate from the state proving their rights have been restored.
A section of the Nevada secretary of state’s website explaining all of this is practically incomprehensible.
Campaign Legal Center launched an online tool in August that lets people with felony convictions in each state input the circumstances of their offense and see if they’re eligible to vote. The site has had nearly 17,000 unique visitors since it launched, said Corey Goldstone, a Campaign Legal Center spokesman.
Blair Bowie, an attorney at Campaign Legal Center who has worked on restoring voting rights to former felons, said state officials could be doing more to make sure people know whether they’re eligible to vote.
“The parole and probation officers should be informing people of their rights. In an even more ideal world, the state has access to all this information about when people are finishing their sentences,” she said. “They should be sending people a letter saying, ‘Hey you’re eligible to vote now, here’s how you do it.’ That’s just not happening in many places.”
“For people who are completing their sentence and trying to put their lives back together, the first thing that comes to their mind is not necessarily going to be voting,” she added.
Alec Ewald, a political science professor at the University of Vermont who has studied disenfranchisement, said it should be as easy as possible for people to figure out who is eligible to vote.
“It’s just not good for legal transparency and the rule of law,” he said.