Friday, December 23, 2011

2011 in Review: A Six-Year Court Battle Over Voting Rights Education

Many Pennsylvanians, including some parole and probation officers, are not aware that ex-offenders retain their right to vote. Thanks to an ACLU-PA court victory, Pittsburgh buses will soon carry advertisements informing people of the truth.

Pennsylvania law allows ex-offenders to vote once they are released from prison, even if they are still on parole - but confusion about this law leads to misunderstanding and misinformation, and many eligible voters are denied their right to vote, or assume they will be turned away. When the ACLU-PA and Pittsburgh League of Young Voters partnered to promote awareness of ex-offender rights, the Pittsburgh Port Authority turned away their ads.

In August,the Third Circuit ruled the Port Authority violated the First Amendment. Although the Port Authority claimed the ads violated policy, the court held that rejection was based on the message. After six years of legal battles, we finally have the opportunity to educate Pittsburgh bus riders that ex-offenders have the right to vote.  We hope to run the ad on Port Authority buses in advance of the October 9 registration deadline for the 2012 general election. Equally important, this decision establishes precedent protecting freedom of speech from government censorship in public forums.  

Confusion over ex-offender voting rights has several likely sources. Many states bar people convicted of felonies from voting - only 14 states (including Pennsylvania) and the District of Columbia allow people to vote after they have "paid their debt to society." In 2000, a court struck down a PA law that would have required felons to wait five years after their release from prison to register to vote. Despite the court decision, some counties included information about this five-year waiting period on their websites as recently as 2008.

A 2005 coalition of the ACLU-PA, League of Young Voters, and other groups decided bus ads were on one of the best ways to educate people about ex-offender voting rights - but despite repeated negotiations, Port Authority steadfastly refused to display the ad. We finally filed suit in August 2006. A federal court ruled in our favor in July 2009, but Port Authority appealed. 

A six-year legal battle is an enormous financial strain on any organization, and the ACLU relies on the contributions of individuals like you for our funding. Your support helps us fight to defend the rights of everyone in Pennsylvania - and, in cases like this, to educate them about those rights. Help us continue this work by making a tax-deductible gift today - because freedom can't protect itself.

- Sara in Pittsburgh

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