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Confusing rules keep felons off voting list

WASHINGTON -- Every state has some means for restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences, but in 14 states the process is so cumbersome few ever are able to cast ballots, according to an advocacy group.

The Sentencing Project, which favors alternatives to prison, estimates 1.5 million felons nationwide have been denied voting rights. About three-quarters of them live in the South.

Difficult or confusing procedures and lengthy waiting periods keep many off voter rolls, the group said.

For example, felons in Nebraska can't vote until they receive a pardon, often a 10-year wait. The Board of Pardons and the state Legislature are considering measures to shorten the time.

Restoration of rights in Tennessee depends on the date of conviction and type of crime; people convicted after June 1996 go through a different process.

''The promise that ex-felons can regain their voting rights in these states is generally illusory," said Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project and an author of the report.

Mauer's group wants to see the 14 states join 34 others and the District of Columbia that automatically restore voting rights to felons who complete their sentences. Maine and Vermont allow prisoners to vote.

But Todd Gaziano of the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation in Washington asked why any state would automatically restore voting privileges when other rights, such as bearing arms or serving on a jury, can be denied felons.

''There are consequences for serious crime that go beyond a prison term, and true rehabilitation has to be proved and shown," said Gaziano, director of the foundation's Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.

According to the Sentencing Project's examination of available data from 11 of the 14 states that don't automatically restore voting rights, less than 3 percent of felons who have served their time in those states have rejoined voter rolls.

Laws in six states -- Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, and Virginia -- apply to all felons. Eight states -- Arizona, Delaware, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, Washington, and Wyoming -- sometimes prevent voting according to the offense or for certain time periods.

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