PHOENIX — A loophole in Arizona's election system allows ineligible felons to be illegally registered to vote without detection.
According to election officials, when a person is convicted of a felony in state or federal court, the court sends notice to the Arizona Secretary of State's Office. Election workers then try to match the felons' names with names on voter rolls. When they find a match, they cancel the felon's voter registration and flag the reason.
However, years after a felony conviction, there is no existing way for Arizona election officials to tell who remains ineligible or whether their civil rights were restored. The loophole is even bigger if a person never before registered to vote because there's not even a notation of a canceled registration.
"There isn't a retained database that you can revisit," said Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor at the Democracy Fund and a former Maricopa County elections office manager.
"That's one of the biggest problems that we have," said former Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes, a Democrat who is now running for secretary of state.
"This first we've heard of it," said state Sen. Kelly Townsend, the newly appointed chairwoman of the state Senate Government Committee. She is promising to look for solutions in the upcoming legislative session.
"That's our work this year and early next year is to close all those loopholes and to tighten up the elections procedures, so people can feel confident when they go to vote that their vote wasn't canceled by someone who wasn't allowed to vote," Townsend said.
ABC15 found the loophole after reporting on voter fraud complaints involving former Phoenix mayoral candidate Tim Seay. Dozens of people said they went to Seay for help to restore their civil rights. However, they said the proper paperwork was not filed in the courts before they received their voter registrations.
It's a Class 6 felony for an ineligible person to register to vote in Arizona. It's a Class 5 felony if the person actually casts a ballot. Voter applicants must check a box indicating they are not a felon, or their rights have been restored, to get registered. Election officials, again, say they don't have the ability to easily double-check the information.
Arizona has some of the strictest requirements in the nation for people with felony convictions who want to legally restore their voting rights. The rules also vary depending on the number of felonies on someone's record.
Patrick said having felons that are legally voting is not a widespread issue.
"We're talking about a handful of people across the entire nation, with 10s of millions of voters," Patrick said.
To cut down more on loopholes or confusion on who is eligible to vote, Fontes suggests streamlining the rights restoration process and implementing automatic voter registration.
"Less complicated can also be more secure," Fontes said. "Because they've put barriers to voting in place, they've also put barriers for election administrators to be able to make secure elections happen in place."
"Make it clear cut how you're eligible, when you're eligible, and remove some of the bureaucratic hurdles," Patrick recommended.
The people with felony records, whom ABC15 interviewed, said they want to avoid additional legal trouble. None voted in Tuesday's election, and they are have either canceled their voter registrations or plan to do so soon.