Local grassroots organizations challenging Americans to register to vote will be joined by the Prison Reform Advocacy Center (PRAC) in their final efforts to fill voting booths in November. But PRAC's method and motivation is unlike any pro-voting organization.
By taking on confused parole officers and incompetent boards of elections throughout Ohio, PRAC is hoping to inform 100,000 ex-prisoners in the state of their right to vote. A recently filed lawsuit has even jump-started the Ohio legislature to get involved.
But this battle doesn't end on Election Day. PRAC is planning to use voting as a means to enhance the overall rehabilitation process for newly released prisoners.
Lawsuit based on confusion
Earlier this month, PRAC released a report confirming that boards of elections and parole officers in Ohio misinform released prisoners of their voting rights. Under state law, voting rights are restored when convicts are released from prison and that ex-offenders maintain their voting rights while under community supervision.
According to the report, 43 percent of released prisoners in Hamilton County believe they're ineligible to vote while on parole — a number significantly higher than other areas in Ohio.
Using the report as a basis for support, PRAC filed a lawsuit in federal court Aug. 17 against Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and 21 of Ohio's county boards of elections, including Hamilton County. PRAC wants an early hearing, which they hope will result in the mailing of approximately 100,000 letters to convicts released from prisons over the past five years, assuring them of their rights. PRAC wants the letters in ex-convicts' hands by Oct. 4, the last day to register to vote in this fall's election.
Allegations in the lawsuit state that defendant boards of elections provide erroneous information to ex-convicts regarding their voting rights and that Blackwell's knowledge of the problem and failure to correct them is a violation of the law.
Blackwell's office declined to offer information regarding the pending legal action.
But State Sen. Mark Mallory (D-Cincinnati) acted a day after PRAC filed the lawsuit, proposing short- and long-term plans to rectify the problem. He wants to push the boards of elections in Ohio to verify ex-offender status by using the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) Web site rather than complicated documentation.
Mallory says short-term solutions already have been implemented at the Hamilton County Board of Elections, but he doesn't know the status of corrective actions taken at other board of elections.
"If the 100,000 letters to ex-offenders are sent out, we'll be satisfied," says David Singleton, executive director of PRAC.
He was encouraged by Mallory's efforts but says, "We are not prepared to drop the lawsuit."
Singleton believes confusion about ex-offender voting rights in Ohio comes from parole officers and boards of elections not clearly understanding state law.
"It just depends on whether the Board of Elections member who answers the phone knows the law," he says.
Tim Burke, chair of the Hamilton County Board of Elections, says the confusion stems from varying voting laws from state to state.
"Board of Elections staff often operate under incorrect beliefs," he says.
According to Singleton, the average citizen doesn't know state law regarding disenfranchisement after imprisonment, a result of the extensive media coverage in Florida during the 2000 elections.
"But there's no excuse for people at the board of elections not to know," he says. "They ought to know the law."
The source of the mistake seems too simple.
"(PRAC's report) reminded people that, once released from prison, felons can register (to vote)," Burke says. "When an error like that happens, we're going to do anything to correct the mistake, and that's what we did."
Sheila Donaldson-Johnson is a paralegal and office manager at PRAC's office on Vine Street. She was released from prison in 1989 after being incarcerated for drug trafficking and sales.
When she left prison, the Board of Elections told her she didn't have the right to vote.
"(My parole officer) was also misinformed, and he said I couldn't vote until I was off of parole," Donaldson-Johnson says. "They all quote that you are still a 'ward of the state.' That was a popular quote. Then I educated myself and found out that I could vote."
In 1990, after missing the 1989 city elections, she voted and hasn't missed a chance to tick a ballot since.
"There is a link between voting and recidivism," Singleton says. "If it can help (ex-prisoners) rehabilitate, why not do it?"
Donaldson-Johnson believes it's the secretary of state's responsibility to ensure correct information is given to boards of elections, parole officers and ex-convicts. Singleton says he's not sure it's the legal duty of parole officers and boards of elections to tell ex-prisoners of their voting rights but thinks they should encourage voting in "the spirit of rehabilitation."
PRAC's report quotes President Bush's 2004 State of the Union Address, in which he said, "America is the land of second chance, and when the gates of the prison open, the path ahead should lead a better life."
"That's coming from someone who's not a bleeding-heart liberal," Singleton says. "This whole voting (process) is critical to being rooted in your community. If you don't have a voice, you feel like you have no power whatsoever to affect the life of the community around you, and what do we expect? You're gonna expect someone who feels utterly powerless, and if you've got nothing to lose, why not go back to the life of crime?"
Donaldson-Johnson agrees. After being released from prison, she graduated with honors from the University of Cincinnati and became a paralegal.
She says having an "F" by your name stating you're a felon is degrading but knowing that your vote can make a difference makes you feel a part of the community.
"Every time it's time to vote, they should have a loudspeaker that says, 'Whoever wants to vote should come and vote,' " she says. "Don't keep it a secret."
'It's about rehabilitation'
PRAC's initiatives are part of the group's overall goal of helping newly released prisoners re-establish themselves in society by enhancing the rehabilitation process.
The study on the voting rights of ex-convicts began as part of a community re-entry program in which PRAC plans to open clinics in neighborhoods where there's a high concentration of released prisoners coming to live. By helping ex-prisoners in Over-the-Rhine, Evanston and West End with legal issues such as child support, record expungement and conditions of parole interfering with the ability to work, PRAC hopes to help make the rehabilitation process more effective.
The study that led to the lawsuit was initiated in May when community reentry work at PRAC began and an issue about voting rights surfaced.
Singleton says voting rights of Ohio's ex-convicts has been an issue for many years.
"It's timely now because Ohio is a battleground state this year and the elections could turn on a few thousand votes in Ohio," he says. "We estimate, conservatively, that at least 7,000 votes have been lost because felons who are entitled to vote believe that they're barred."
While organizations such as Indyvoter.com are working simply to help people understand the importance of voting, PRAC wants released prisoners to get a meaningful second chance.
"It's about rehabilitation," Singleton says. "I don't care who folks are voting for. I just want them to go to the polls and vote."
For more information about the Prison Reform Advocacy Center, visit www.prisonreform.com or call 513-421-1108. To contact the Hamilton County Board of Elections, call 513-632-7000