On Monday, I wrote about a flawed batch of data passed on by the Arkansas Secretary of State that has resulted in thousands of citizens being wrongly flagged as felons and therefore ineligible to vote. The story was first reported by Chelsea Boozer of the Democrat-Gazette.
The data, which originated with the Arkansas Crime Information Center, mistakenly flagged some 4,000 people who have never been convicted of a felony, along with an unknown number of others who have been convicted of a felony but have since had their voting rights reinstated. What’s still unclear is how many of those people were actually removed from the voter rolls by their county clerks. Being flagged for removal is not the same as being actually removed, and a spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office told me yesterday that county officials should be carefully vetting the data they are sent from the state.
Since then, I’ve spoken to two men — one in Pope County and one in Lonoke County — who were among the thousands incorrectly flagged as felons by the secretary of state. Both said they were indeed actually removed from the voter rolls. Both have since been reinstated, but only after spending much time trying to rectify the problem.
Justin Hagan of Pope County said he received a letter saying his registration was revoked around the beginning of the month. The letter said he was a felon, but Hagan has never been convicted of a felony.
“What really worried me is that it had been put into ACIC. So in the event that I was driving to work and I had my firearm with me, I could be arrested and face some serious charges,” Hagan said.
“It took me two or three weeks to get taken care of. Everyone was telling me to do this, do that. I called the Arkansas State Police, I called district court in Russellville … I called ACIC, too. It was a big vicious circle.” The state police, he said, told him he’d have to pay $25 to have a copy of his record mailed to him.
Hagan told me he has misdemeanors on his record, but has never been convicted of a felony. Finally, he said, when he went back to the courthouse in Russellville, “someone somewhere had figured it out and they were eager to fix it. … They were real friendly and real apologetic about it.” By that point, the Pope county clerk would have received notice from the secretary of state that its felon data contained errors.
But Hagan said he did not get the warmest reception on his first visit. “I got the impression they thought, ‘this is just another scumbag trying to get out of something.’ I can understand that, because I’m sure that does happen. … I feel like if had walked in there with my hair put up and all cleaned up they would have treated me better.” He eventually also got an answer from ACIC: “A report said in 2006 that I was convicted of a felony possession charge, which is not true. It was just a mistake someone made, I guess.”
Hagan said he is neither a Democrat nor a Republican.
Pope County Clerk Laura McGuire said she’s been directing her employees to check every recently flagged individual since she first received notice of the error from the secretary of state. “We were told to hold up … then they said just to ‘proceed with caution,'” she said. “We were already having some issues, and then we received this official documentation. We’re following up by going through the courts … to confirm that that [each] case has been taken care of.”
Normally, McGuire said, when a voter is flagged as ineligible due to a felony conviction, the clerk’s office sends a letter notifying them their rights have been revoked and explaining how to eventually get their rights reinstated. “It’s a normal, routine issue … and basically, it’s up to that individual to take the steps to restore their voter rights.” Under Arkansas law, felons are ineligible to vote until they’ve completed parole or probation and paid all fines or restitution.
But in this instance, she said, her office is not waiting on the voters to take action. She’s told her staff to reinstate flagged individuals if they have voted in recent elections. In other words, since finding out about the problem, McGuire is erring on the side of caution. “Nobody should ever be refused the right to vote,” she said. She also noted a number of the letters the office has sent out have come back undeliverable.
McGuire said there were 90 people on the ACIC list sent by the secretary of state to Pope County, and that they’d sent about 50 of those individuals letters by the time her office received the “hold up” warning from the secretary of state. Of those 50, she said, “we have had three that have contacted us” about being incorrectly removed. “The others … it looks like a lot of them are going to be [incorrect] but we’re not finished working through all the records.”
Bo Ingram of Cabot said he received his letter notifying him his voting rights had been
suspended right after the Fourth of July. Ingram does have a felony on his record, but he was released from parole over a decade ago and had his rights reinstated “sometime between 2006 and 2008.”
Lonoke, the county seat, is about a 30 minute drive from his house, he said. So, “I took off work Friday and went up there to the parole office, and asked if I could get copies of my release papers, because I was released in 2005. They told me … it shouldn’t be a problem. So I went to the courthouse in Lonoke, and after going upstairs and downstairs, I talked to a woman at the voter registration place. … She said there’d already been several people in there with the same problem. That theirs had been suspended.”
The employee at the clerk’s office, he said, was apologetic and angry on his behalf about the mix-up from the state. “She believed me, and she reinstated me. … She was probably even more pissed off than I was,” he said. “She wasn’t giving anybody any hassle about putting them back on the list. She said, ‘This is an important election.'”
“I’m a loud-mouthed Democrat, I guess you’d say,” Ingram said. “I’m not a conspiracy person and all that, but I wonder — how many of those people were Democrats?”
(I attempted to call the Lonoke County Clerk’s office Tuesday afternoon, but couldn’t reach anyone — though in fairness, I placed the call around 4:40 p.m.)