Monday, July 25, 2016

Data mix-up from Ark. secretary of state purges unknown number of eligible voters

Posted By on Mon, Jul 25, 2016 at 10:36 AM

DISFRANCHISED: Some Arkansans could be in for an unhappy surprise on Election Day. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • DISFRANCHISED: Some Arkansans could be in for an unhappy surprise on Election Day.
Make sure to read the story in today's Democrat-Gazette from Chelsea Boozer about a bureaucratic error that has flagged thousands of Arkansas voters to be removed from the registration rolls.

Those affected include some ex-felons now eligible to vote, as well as some 4,000 people who have never been convicted of a felony but were somehow mistakenly flagged as such in the Arkansas Crime Information Center, Boozer reports. It's not yet clear how many of those flagged have actually been kicked off the voter rolls.

Under Arkansas law, felons are ineligible to vote until they've completed parole or probation and paid all fines or restitution. The office of Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin regularly sends state-level data regarding felons to the county clerks in the state's 75 counties. Those local officials are the authorities actually responsible for registration of voters and maintenance of the rolls. But the secretary of state's office recently sent a batch of flawed data from the ACIC that contained thousands of incorrect flags. 

That means — depending on the whether the clerk diligently cross-checked the data to ensure its reliability — some counties in the state may have accidentally disfranchised a large number of voters. Boozer talked to Pulaski County Clerk Larry Crane, who said that perhaps half of the 2,000 flags his office received from the secretary of state were incorrect. Some were ex-felons who've made good on their debt and have been reinstated. Others had no felony record at all. Brad Cazort of the ACIC told Boozer that some "very old ... [non-felony] convictions out of municipal court" were flagged due to faulty court data.

There's talk of a lawsuit. The article doesn't mention this, but let's also not forget that black people represent a disproportionate amount of the ex-felon population. It would be interesting to see a racial breakdown of those flagged incorrectly.

I called secretary of state spokesperson Chris Powell this morning to ask about the issue. The office's elections division has already told counties about the problem, he told me, and the division will keep working with the county clerks and ACIC in the weeks ahead. 

But it doesn't sound as if the secretary of state's office will be making a proactive effort to identify individuals who may have been disfranchised. It is understood, Powell said, that clerks "need to check that data carefully." The office will work with the clerks on a county-by-county basis, he said. "We house the data, but they are the official voting registrars of their county. We do not add or remove anyone [from the voter rolls]."

But might some counties not realize the extent of the problem? According to Boozer, the problem arose when the secretary of state's office switched from using data from the Arkansas Department of Correction to the ACIC data. (Using data from the prisons system was a screw-up in itself: state law apparently says the ACIC should be the source of the data.) I asked Powell whether counties might be used to simply trusting the felony flags passed on by the secretary of state's office and therefore not have double-checked the information. After all, the clerks are required to expediently remove from the rolls anyone who is ineligible.

"I can't speak for what any individual counties were doing. But there should be due diligence involved in the process," Powell said. "I don't think anyone is just being casual about it. ... I don't know personally what their process is. They have information that we provide and then they have information on their end. ... Folks have been verifying the voter rolls for years. They get lists with problem registrations, duplicate registrations."

In this case, though, the secretary of state's office is itself responsible for passing on flawed information. I asked Powell whether Mark Martin — who is, after all, the elected constitutional officer in charge of the elections division — whether he might take any extraordinary action to make sure the problem is rectified. Powell said he would pass the question along.

As an aside: One way to solve this problem would be to simply stop disfranchising felons, as some states do. Here's information from the National Conference of State Legislatures showing how different states treat the issue, and here's a map from the ACLU.

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