Political group hires felons to sign up voters

America Coming Together, hoping to unseat President Bush, registers voters in key states, including Mo.
Thursday, June 24, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:39 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A Democratic group crucial to John Kerry’s presidential campaign has paid felons — some convicted of sex offenses, assault and burglary — to conduct door-to-door voter registration drives in at least three election swing states.

America Coming Together, contending that convicted criminals deserve a second chance in society, employs felons as voter canvassers in major metropolitan areas in Missouri, Florida, Ohio and perhaps other states.

ACT canvassers ask residents which issues are important to them and, if they are not registered, sign them up as voters. They gather telephone numbers and other personal information, such as driver’s license numbers or partial Social Security numbers.

Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, which represents election officials, said he is unaware of any laws against felons registering other people to vote.

A review of federal campaign finance and state criminal records revealed that the names and hometowns of dozens of ACT employees in Missouri, Florida and Ohio matched those of people convicted of crimes such as burglary, forgery, drug dealing, assault and sex offenses. Although it works against the re-election of President Bush, ACT is an independent group not affiliated with the Kerry campaign — federal law forbids such coordination. Yet ACT is stocked with veteran Democratic political operatives.. ACT does not believe the felons it sends door to door pose a threat to the public, said Mo Elleithee, a Washington-based spokesman for the group.

Although ACT asks job applicants to cite their criminal history and hires some felons and not others, Elleithee would not reveal how many felons ACT has hired to canvass neighborhoods and register voters.

Citing security concerns for the public and for the felons, the Missouri Department of Corrections in April banished ACT from its pool of potential employers for parolees in its halfway houses in Kansas City and St. Louis, department spokesman John Fougere said. Five ACT employees lived at the Kansas City Community Release Center and two others at the St. Louis Community Release Center earlier this year.

“From a public safety standpoint, we didn’t want offenders to be in a situation where they would be handling that information,” Fougere said. Officials also were concerned the door-to-door campaign would put felons at greater risk of false accusations, he said.

ACT adopted a policy against employing violent felons this spring, Elleithee said, but he declined to release the policy or to describe what the group considered violent.

Four of ACT’s former employees living at a Missouri halfway house have since been returned to prison. None of the incidents was related to their work for ACT, Fougere said.

The Republican Party has been critical of ACT and other similar groups set up to oppose Bush independently of the Democratic Party. The fact that ACT has used felons to sign up voters is “extremely troubling,” said Ann Wagner, co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee and chairwoman of the Missouri Republican Party.

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