New effort seeks to protect Nebraska felon voting rights

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska on Monday began sending notices to thousands of felons informing them of their right to vote after learning of a case in which the state incorrectly notified an Omaha man that he wasn’t eligible to cast a ballot.

The ACLU launched the public awareness project to ensure felons know whether or not they’re qualified to vote in the upcoming general election. The group said it plans to mail nearly 9,000 voting rights packets to county jails and the homes of residents who received disqualification notices from election officials.

Nebraska allows felons to vote after a two-year waiting period that begins once they’ve finished their sentence as well as any parole or probation.

“Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy and the right upon which all civil liberties rest,” said Adam Sipple, legal director of the ACLU of Nebraska. “When it comes to communication about voting rights, the acceptable error rate is zero. It shouldn’t happen.”

The ACLU said its review found that some people who received disqualification notices had completed their sentence well beyond the two-year limitation. Others had felony charges that were later reduced to misdemeanors or dismissed. Still others were wrongfully disqualified from casting a ballot because they were given an “unsatisfactory” release from probation — a circumstance that doesn’t affect their right to vote under state law.

Caught in the confusion was Walter Wolff, an Omaha man who was erroneously told he couldn’t vote in the upcoming general election because of his status as a felon.

Wolff, 68, was released from prison in March 2017 for fourth-offense driving under the influence, but went through a treatment program and hasn’t reoffended since. He said he was shocked and angry when election officials denied his request for a ballot because he knew he was eligible.

“It was kind of like they were doing everything they could to make sure I would never vote again,” Wolff said in an interview. “A lot of people have died for this country so I could vote. It’s my duty to do it to pay them this respect for defending that right.”

A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Bob Evnen said state election officials are reviewing the ACLU of Nebraska’s findings and will correct any errors before the election. The ACLU of Nebraska obtained the names of those who had been disqualified through a public records request.

Cindi Allen, a spokeswoman for Evnen, said anyone whose name doesn’t appear on the state voter registry can still cast a provisional ballot at their polling place. Election officials would determine later whether the person was eligible to vote and thus whether the ballot should be counted.

Nebraska is one of 11 states that either require a waiting period for felons beyond the completion of parole or probation or don’t restore voting rights at all, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Another 21 states reinstate voting rights for felons as soon as they finish parole or probation, and 16 other states and the District of Columbia restore those rights as soon as an inmate is released from prison. Two states, Maine and Vermont, allow felons to vote while incarcerated.

The ACLU called Nebraska’s two-year waiting period “arbitrary” and said it’s a frequent source of questions and confusion for voters and election officials. Other states have faced similar problems, including one case in Iowa in which a man was arrested because of a bureaucratic error that placed him on the state’s list of ineligible felon voters.

The ACLU said the restriction disproportionately affects Black Nebraskans and other minorities, who make up a larger share of the state’s prison population.

“Since the arbitrary two-year rule is continually confusing to members of the public and election officials, it’s important every Nebraskan who has questions works through this carefully with their local election officials and ACLU if need be,” said Danielle Conrad, the group’s executive director. “The Nebraska voters and local election officials we talk to want to do the right thing, that’s why it’s important to work together to make sure every eligible voter can participate.”

Nebraska lawmakers passed a measure in 2017 to eliminate the two-year waiting period so that felons could vote as soon as their sentence ends, but Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed it and senators couldn’t muster enough votes for an override.

Ricketts argued in his veto letter that many felons reoffend shortly after they’re released from prison, and the waiting period gives them an incentive to maintain a clean record. He also contended that the bill violates the Nebraska Constitution by restoring a civil rights to felons, a power delegated to the state pardons board.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter: https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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