On July 5, Bo Ingram’s mailbox was overflowing after the holiday weekend, and he almost overlooked a letter from the Lonoke County clerk’s office telling him he’d been stripped of his right to vote. Ingram, 50, had his voting rights suspended after a felony conviction in 2000, but he was released from parole in 2005 and reinstated to the voter rolls a couple of years later. People convicted of felonies in Arkansas lose their right to vote, but may regain the right once they have been released from incarceration, completed all probation or parole and made good on any outstanding fines, court costs and restitution. It came as a rude surprise, then, for Ingram to be told almost a decade later that his rights were being rescinded again.
“I took off work Friday and went up there to the parole office in Lonoke” — a 30-minute drive from his home in Cabot — “and asked if I could get copies of my release papers,” he recalled. The parole office confirmed his papers were in order, and so he headed to the courthouse to find the county clerk, the local elected official responsible for registering voters. “I talked to a woman at the voter registration place, and she was more pissed off than I was about it,” Ingram said. “She said there’d already been several people in there with the same problem.”
Ingram said the woman reinstated him, apologized and explained that the Lonoke County clerk had recently received a list of voters flagged as felons from the office of Arkansas Secretary of State Mark Martin. The secretary of state is responsible for maintaining election records, and the office periodically sends criminal justice data to county clerks, which they use to strike felons from their rolls as required by law. But this particular batch of data, evidently transmitted in June, turned out to be severely flawed. It contained a large number of individuals, such as Ingram, who’d had their voting rights restored in the past — as well as about 4,000 other voters who’d never been convicted of a felony in the first place. (The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette first brought the story to statewide attention on July 25.)
In a July 6 letter to county clerks, the secretary of state’s elections division acknowledged that “there is potential for some errors to occur” in the data it had sent the previous month and suggested that local officials “proceed with caution” before removing voters.
The problem occurred when the secretary of state’s office began getting its data from the Arkansas Crime Information Center, a clearinghouse that warehouses criminal justice data. Previously, the secretary of state’s office received felon lists from Arkansas Community Correction; it switched only after someone in the office discovered state law specifies ACIC should be the source of the information. But the Arkansas Community Corection data tended to only list newer convictions, whereas the secretary of state’s office requested ACIC provide it with a list of every Arkansan with a felony on his or her record, including many older convictions.
“Many individuals,” the July 6 letter said, “ may have to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis prior to removing them” The secretary of state’s office offered to reverse any cancellations already made from the list — but it left it up to the county to request such a blanket reinstatement.
Among the things the letter does not make clear is the scope of the problem. If the experience of the clerks in two of the state’s largest counties are any guide, as many as two-thirds of the individuals flagged in the ACIC data may actually be eligible to vote.
In Jonesboro, Craighead County Clerk Kade Holliday said his office received a list of 153 flagged individuals in June, but “ultimately, we were able to dismiss 92 of those names, because we were able to show they actually had fulfilled their sentence.” (Unique among the county clerks the Arkansas Times spoke to for this story, Holliday had vetted every name on the list as of Aug. 1, in large part because he was assisted by his local parole and probation office.) Pulaski County Clerk Larry Crane said he received a list of around 2,000 flagged names from the secretary of state’s office in June, and has reviewed some 600 individual cases as of Aug. 1. “Of that 600, roughly 200 are appropriate felons,” Crane said, while 119 are clearly “innocent bystanders” and many more require further review to conclusively determine eligibility.
Meanwhile, the response to the error has varied drastically from county to county. Some clerks have reinstated every canceled registration and are now carefully vetting every case. Others, though, have automatically canceled everyone on their list and simply plan to reinstate voters on a case-by-case basis whenever individuals complain of the issue. Although county clerks have a constitutional obligation to ensure voters have access to the polls, they also have an obligation to promptly remove active felons from the rolls. An error of this magnitude leaves them in a bind. With a historic general election only three months away, it is unclear how many eligible Arkansas voters may remain wrongly disenfranchised by the flawed data.
After sending out the July 6 letter, the secretary of state’s office has seemingly washed its hands of the error. It appears to be taking no further action to identify individuals who have been mistakenly disenfranchised or to offer further guidance to counties. Spokesperson Chris Powell said the secretary of state’s constitutional responsibility ends after it provides the data to the clerks.
“We house the data, but [clerks] are the official voting registrars of their county. We do not add or remove anyone,” he said. “I can’t speak for what any individual counties were doing. But there should be due diligence involved in the process. … Folks have been verifying the voter rolls for years.” Powell said his office simply passed on the list it received from ACIC. “I don’t think we did much editing to the data. … We’re just kind of the information go-between, if you will,” he said.
The numbers suggest otherwise. Brad Cazort, the repository administrator for ACIC, said the secretary of state’s office “requested anyone with a felony conviction. … We sent them roughly 197,000 names. Everyone who’s ever had a felony in Arkansas.” (In the process, Cazort said, ACIC also discovered roughly 4,000 people in its database who’d been incorrectly identified as felons by the court system; he said those errors were all 20 years old or more.) Powell said he wasn’t sure how many names, in total, were on the flawed felon lists the secretary of state sent to Arkansas’s 75 counties. However, considering there were just 2,000 names on the list for Pulaski County (which comprises over 10 percent of the state’s population), it seems unlikely the state flagged all 197,000 individuals for removal. It remains unclear whether the office’s elections division edited the felon data in any way before forwarding it to clerks. Powell said ACIC later sent the secretary of state a second, “pared-down” list, but Cazort said ACIC never sent a second list.
When asked whether the secretary of state’s office was aware beforehand that the ACIC data included individuals whose voting rights have been reinstated, Powell said, “We thought that it might be possible there would be some issues with that. ACIC did not have records of who had had their rights restored and who had not. Counties do, because people are supposed to file [to regain voting rights] at the county level. So we didn’t have a way of verifying that, nor is it our place to do so.” It is understood that clerks need to check whatever data they receive from the state, Powell said.
But many of the county clerks the Arkansas Times spoke to over the past week say they simply canceled the registrations of all the voters flagged by the secretary of state’s office, since they assumed the data was trustworthy.
Lonoke County Clerk Dawn Porterfield, whose office handled Bo Ingram’s registration, described what normally happens when she receives felon data from the secretary of state: “We go in and remove them, and notify those individuals by letter, and then it’s up to them to prove that they’ve been [reinstated].” There were about 155 individuals flagged on the list she received in June, Porterfield said; her office has received “10 to 20 phone calls” from individuals like Ingram in the past few weeks. “The ones that can prove they were reinstated were reinstated,” she said. Porterfield said she would prefer to have the state “reset” the cancellations and provide better data, but she hasn’t yet requested a blanket reinstatement, in part because the secretary of state’s office is busy handling ballot initiatives and other pre-election tasks.
“We’re waiting on further instructions from our secretary of state,” she said.
In Clarksville, an employee at the Johnson County clerk’s office said the June list contained about 40 names.
“We removed everyone … and sent them a letter,” Jessica Cochran, of the clerk’s office, said. “We probably got 10 of them that either called or came back in with their letter to show that they had their felony taken care of.” It’s likely some of those letters won’t reach their intended recipient, considering the addresses on file may be out of date. “Normally, a lot of felon letters come back undeliverable, but I don’t know if we’ve received any back for this issue,” she said. Nonetheless, Cochran said her office has not opted for the blanket reinstatement offered by the secretary of state. She said she and others in the Johnson County office were under the impression the state’s recommendation was to “leave it as it was.”
Powell said the secretary of state’s office recommendation is to “err on the side of caution” (a directive that can be interpreted two ways). “It’s kind of the clerks’ prerogative about how they want to handle these things,” he said.
If an eligible voter is mistakenly disenfranchised and doesn’t discover the error until Election Day, Cochran said, “They’ll be given a provisional ballot. They’ll probably still be allowed to vote.”
In neighboring Pope County, County Clerk Laura McGuire is not waiting on voters to approach her, in part “because a lot of the letters we sent out were returned undeliverable.” Her office had 90 names on its list and has been contacted by three people so far. To look for erroneous cancellations, she’s instructed her workers to search court records — an easy task if the conviction occurred in that county, but often time consuming if the conviction is older and was in a different county’s court. McGuire is also looking at recent voting history, and erring on the side of the voter: If someone has voted in recent elections but their felony conviction is from years before, she’s assuming they are indeed eligible. “Nobody should ever be refused the right to vote,” she said.
Many clerks are taking a similar approach, and say they are troubled by the secretary of state’s apparent apathy towards the error.
Benton County Clerk Tena O’Brien said her county, the state’s second largest, received about 500 names from the secretary of state in June. Her office had only removed a fraction of those voters when it began getting phone calls.
“One’s conviction was back in ’74. Another said, ‘I haven’t been in trouble since I was 20, 21’ … He’s 46 years old now,” O’Brien said. “I’m really upset, especially with this general election.”
She has opted for the blanket reinstatement. “I told the secretary of state, ‘I want them all put back to active till I can go back and review each and every one of them.’ I’m not sure it can be done before the election, though.” With hundreds of names to process and fall elections to prepare for, she’d like some assistance from the state. But, she said, “They more or less indicated that the clerks would have to do this.”
Although O’Brien is concerned about failing to remove a felon who should be removed under law, she’s more worried about disenfranchising people. “I can be sued either way, it turns out. But for the number [of convictions] I was finding that had been taken care of 20-some years ago, I’d rather err on that side of it. I don’t want to prevent anyone from voting.”
Washington County Clerk Becky Lewallan said her office had processed about 30 out of 545 names when it realized the data was bad; she requested the blanket reinstatement as well. Faulkner County Clerk Margaret Darter had a list of 159 names and “approximately a dozen” complaints. Her office has manually reinstated anyone it initially canceled.
“I hate that this has happened, and I hate opening up wounds for people who have already done this once,” Darter said.
Larry Crane also requested the blanket reinstatement. “And we asked for it to be done statewide, as a better alternative … [because] 75 counties have 75 different ways of doing their business,” he added. But the secretary of state’s office told him it would only make the reinstatements at individual counties’ request.
In Camden, Ouachita County Clerk Britt Williford said he realized right away that the list of 178 flagged names he received in June was flawed — in part because many of the conviction dates were so old, and in part because “I came across a couple names of people who I knew were felons in the past and had their rights restored.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the data we received from [the secretary of state] is flawed and I don’t have any way of verifying it, and I think they need to correct it,” he said “I’m not going to remove someone who’s been voting these last years. It’s terrible. … That’s violating their rights. It’s a quandary.”
But Williford, who has been county clerk since 2001, said he’s concerned others won’t be as cautious. “I know a lot of clerks just blindly accept those batches and run through them if it says ‘felon.’ ”
When asked if it was a problem that some clerks may not double-check the data they receive, Powell said, “I can’t speak for what individual clerks are doing. … It is their constitutional duty and authority to be the official registrar of voter rolls in their county.”
Secretary of State Mark Martin himself, who earns an annual salary of $90,000, did not respond to requests for a statement for this story. Governor Hutchinson did offer a comment, however.
“I have full confidence the secretary of state’s office will remedy this situation and make sure every voter has access this upcoming election,” Hutchinson said through a spokesperson. “We are also reviewing any errors in the accuracy of the information provided to the secretary of state’s office to ensure that this does not happen again in the future.”
To inquire about your voter registration status, contact your local county clerk’s office. A directory of county officials can be found at the Association of Arkansas Counties. If you have never been convicted of a felony and suspect you may be identified as a felon, contact the Arkansas Crime Information Center.