Lawmaker: Former offenders unaware of restored voting rights

February 28, 2019

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina lawmakers say some former convicted offenders who complete their sentence, parole and probation period are unaware that current state law allows for their voting rights to be restored. Proposed legislation would provide clarity to state agencies and hold them accountable for notifying offenders, lawmakers said.

Members of the House election laws subcommittee voted Thursday in favor of a bill that would require the South Carolina Department of Corrections and the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services to notify those who were convicted of a crime or former felons of their rights. Though current state law allows for a former offender to register to vote after successful completion of their sentence, including terms of supervision, lawmakers said the problem lies in them being unaware of those rights.

The bill’s author, Democratic Rep. John King, offered an amendment that clarified the legislation is to correlate with current state election laws and would require the agencies to send notifications in writing with a hard copy going to the state election commission. The Rock Hill lawmaker said the legislation would serve as a means to hold agencies accountable for notifying returning citizens.

“Many people who have completed their time or probation or parole are not informed of their eligibility,” King said. “This is just an educational component to educate them their rights have been restored.”

According to the South Carolina Election Commission, federal and state courts provide them with lists of people convicted of felonies or crimes against the election laws and those persons are removed from the state’s list of active, registered voters. However, courts do not provide the SEC with names of persons who have completed their sentences.

“While the voter automatically becomes eligible to register to vote again, they don’t automatically become registered again,” Chris Whitmire with the SEC said in a statement to The Associated Press. “They must submit a new application. The new application is submitted to the county board of voter registration and elections, not the SEC.”

Co-sponsor of the legislation Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter said trying to resolve this “systemic issue” in South Carolina has been years in the making in the legislature.

“I think it is great that we are now at a point in this state where we can talk about how we improve existing law,” the Orangeburg lawmaker said. “In spite of it being law, because of systemic issues, it is just not being enforced or carried out.”

Subcommittee chairman Republican Rep. Gary Clary said finding clarity amongst the roles of the affected entities is needed in order for the legislation to serve its function. Clary said he knows firsthand through his experience as a circuit judge how misinformed some former offenders are on the matter.

“Most people operate under the misconception that scarlet letter attached to that crime goes with their ability to vote forever,” the Central lawmaker said. “Many of them think it is a lifetime ban. This is something that is certainly needed.”

South Carolina Progressive Network director Brett Bursey said the responsibility of informing returning citizens about their rights lies with those who were the last to hold them in custody and with those running county election offices who he said are sometimes misinformed.

“It is part of their job to welcome back citizens because people coming out of prison are coming back into the community and one of the things we believe that will help them become more productive citizens is to get them engaged civically,” Bursey said.

According to the SEC, county voter registration boards must be satisfied that the applicant completed their sentence and in some cases provide proof of doing so.

“All county voter registration and elections staff are trained on this process and procedure. There should be no confusion among election officials regarding the eligibility of a voter who has completed his sentence,” the SEC statement read.

The amended legislation was voted favorably out of subcommittee.