Sex Offenders at the Polls

They have every right to be there in Connecticut once they have served their sentences. But some voting districts have raised concerns.

By Len Besthoff
|  Thursday, Feb 13, 2014  |  Updated 12:05 AM EDT
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A state elections panel is investigating an incident that raises questions about the fine line between personal rights and public safety.  Larry Johnson says he was so intimidated this past fall, that the Norwalk man left his polling place without exercising his right to vote…all because of his criminal past.  He spoke with NBC Troubleshooters’ Chief Investigative Reporter Len Besthoff.

“I feel like they violated my rights, my voting rights.”  You can sense the anger in Larry Johnson’s voice as he describes what happened last September during a Democratic primary vote in Norwalk.  “I felt intimidated.  I felt like I was being stuck out, it was very humiliating, very embarrassing”

Johnson is a registered sex offender.  He was released from prison a decade ago, after serving five years for a sexual assault conviction involving a woman he knew.   He turned down an offer to have the case dropped and charges erased after 13 months.   He chose to go to trial.. and lost.

Johnson says since prison, he started his own business, works with troubled teens…and has actively voted, until last fall…that’s when he says he was turned away at his polling station, the Columbus Elementary School in Norwalk...which was holding classes that day.  “They said I would have to leave the grounds of the school immediately.  I asked them why.  They didn’t want to answer it.  They called an officer over who escorted me off the school property.”

The registrar’s office sent Johnson back to the polls, telling him he had the right to vote. 

“Johnson:  That’s when the officer shadowed me…it was shadowing, meaning real close.  And it made anyone who was watching think that I was a danger to someone else.  Besthoff:  How close was he standing?  Johnson:  Real close.  Besthoff:  Like a foot?   Johnson:  Not even a foot.  Less than that.”

Johnson left Columbus Elementary without voting.  “I was discouraged.  I think that was the first time I hadn’t voted in the last 10 years”.  So why did this happen to Johnson?  Norwalk Democratic Registrar Stuart Wells asked police for printouts of all registered sex offenders in town that might be voting in the primary…and distributed them to poll moderators.  “The schools had all expressed a considerable interest in increasing their security since Sandy Hook, for obvious reasons.  We have…10 locations that are schools that we use for polling places.” 

Problem was, no distinction was made between registered sex offenders like Johnson, whose conviction involved an adult, and others who may have had crimes involving children.  “When we checked with his probation officer he said he had no restrictions on being near schools”

The poll moderator and police have a different version of what happened with Larry Johnson.   Neither will comment.  The case file is sealed while it remains under investigation.  The bigger question, is how to deal in the future with registered sex offenders, who, unlike Johnson, do have offenses involving children, when the polling stations are at schools?  And according to the Secretary of the State’s office, roughly one third of all Connecticut public schools are open on Election Day.

People convicted of crimes involving children often are forbidden from going near schools.  The state says those convicts are often subject to lengthy terms of supervision after their sentences, and arrangements can be made to allow them to vote at a school that is open…but Stuart Wells isn’t so sure. 

“Besthoff:  You don’t have a playbook for how to deal with this stuff!  Wells:  Correct, if there are, if they couldn’t go in the schools, and you don’t qualify for an absentee ballot, how’s the person supposed to exercise their constitutional right to vote?  We’re concerned about that.  We don’t want to impact the children, but we want everybody vote who’s entitled to do so, without getting arrested in the process.”

The state legislature is expected to deal with this issue…but not until next year.  First a constitutional amendment must pass this fall allowing lawmakers to fine tune Connecticut’s election laws.  In the meantime, Larry Johnson just hopes his next vote at Columbus Elementary goes smoother. 

“There’s a lot of votes on the street.  A lot of votes.  But if they see what’s happening, that happened to me, then people aren’t gonna want to show up.”

There is a possibility this could be dealt with sooner rather than later, with at least a temporary fix.  A state elections panel is expected to discuss the issue soon, and we will let you know what progress it makes.
 

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