Votes sought for felons

John Nolan and John Nolan

CINCINNATI–Advocates who contend that Ohio elections officials haven’t properly informed released felons about their right to vote said Thursday that the state has backed away from a promise that led to the settlement of a lawsuit.

State officials denied the claim by the Prison Reform Advocacy Center, which had filed the lawsuit in August in an effort to inform ex-convicts that they can register to vote in the Nov. 2 presidential election. State spokesmen said Ohio had not made any commitment or reached any settlement of the lawsuit against Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell and 21 county boards of election.

Prisoner advocates have estimated that 7,000 to 21,000 ex-felony convicts statewide could be affected. The deadline for registering to vote in the November election is Oct. 4.

In contrast to some other states, Ohio law allows felons to vote once they have been released from prison, even if they are still on parole or probation. The Prison Reform Advocacy Center’s lawsuit contended that Ohio elections officials were not properly informing ex-convicts of the law.

The prisoner advocacy group said it reached separate settlements with county election boards to inform their employees and post notices concerning a released felon’s right to vote. But that does not legally involve the state, said Bob Beasley, a spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction did not reach a settlement because it was not named as a defendant in the suit, department spokeswoman JoEllen Culp said.

But the Prison Reform Advocacy Center said it dismissed its lawsuit against Blackwell this month based on a promise by a lawyer who spoke for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. The prisoners’ advocacy organization released a court transcript in which a state attorney told a federal judge on Sept. 3 that the state prisons department could help by having parole officers give written notice to ex-convicts saying that state law allows them to vote after being released.

“The DRC will support your efforts,” Philip King, a lawyer in Petro’s office, said during a conference call that attorneys for both sides had with U.S. District Judge Sandra Beckwith. “What they will do, they’ll make– through this settlement, they can make the notice available as these individuals come in to report … and the officers can make sure that each of them knows of their rights.”

King said that would be a more effective solution than the prisoner advocates’ suggestion of mailing notification letters to thousands of ex-convicts at addresses that might no longer be valid. The transcript reflects that the prisoner advocacy group’s lawyer, David Singleton, praised King’s suggestion as “something that we could live with.”

“The ODRC was stepping up and saying ‘we’re going to do it,’ and we relied on that,” Singleton said in a telephone interview Thursday. “The state is playing games. They said they would do it.”

The prisons department will not provide the written notice to felons, Culp said. Singleton said he has no plans to renew the lawsuit against Blackwell, but accused Blackwell of blocking the prisons department from going ahead with the proposal. Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for Blackwell, denied that on Thursday.

Petro’s office released a faxed exchange of Sept. 15 letters between Singleton and Richard Coglianese, a lawyer in Petro’s office, in which Coglianese said the prisons department had not agreed to anything in regard to the lawsuit.

In a response letter to Coglianese, Singleton acknowledged that the prisons department and the Adult Parole Authority weren’t legally bound to provide the notices to parolees.