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Legislative panel votes to keep many felons from casting ballot

Sixteen felons sitting in the state prison in Bluffdale, maybe 80 felons housed in jails and prisons outside Salt Lake County, won't get the chance to be good citizens in 1998.

That is if Rep. Carl Saunders, R-Weber, gets his way.Wednesday, a legislative committee adopted a bill pushed by Saunders that would deny those "incarcerated, on probation or on parole" for felonies from voting.

Members of the Government Operations Interim Study Committee decided not to heed the pleas of state and county election officials about the difficulty in tracking down probationers and parolees to keep them off voting roles.

Instead of denying voting to just inmates, as a dozen other states do, legislators decided to deny voting privileges to all convicted felons - those in prison and those in the community on probation or parole.

Kelleen Potter, state elections director, said it's easy enough to have the state clerk of the courts to send her office a list of all convicted felons. Those names could be struck from voter registration rolls.

But what happens if a probationer or a parolee, struck from the rolls after the court's report, re-registers to vote just before an election? It would be very difficult to track that person down. Residents registering to vote don't give their Social Security numbers, they just list their names and addresses.

It's against the law to falsely register to vote. But county attorneys today don't prosecute voter fraud. They have bigger cases to try, Potter said. So it's unlikely a probationer or parolee, even if caught voting, would be punished.

But legislative staff attorney John Fellows said it would be a violation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution to treat convicted felons differently in regard to the "fundamental right" to vote.

Because the Utah Constitution allows prison inmates to vote, it will take a constitutional change to deny them that right.

Few felons actually try to vote, however, said Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swenson. Only 16 prison inmates at the prison near Bluffdale registered and cast absentee ballots in 1996. Statewide, fewer than 80 jail and prison inmates voted, officials said.