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"Some people just released under the First Step Act are learning that they never lost the right to vote in the first place under state law and could have been voting while incarcerated," writes Bowie.

First Step Act beneficiaries left wondering: Can I vote?

Bowie is a staff attorney with the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit government watchdog. She leads the group's RestoreYourVote public education campaign.

Recently 3,100 Americans were released early from federal prisons because of policy changes from the First Step Act, a criminal justice bill enacted with lopsided bipartisan support last fall. Those individuals are returning to their homes across the country and embarking on the challenging path to restoring their place as members of their communities. Studies show that regaining the right to vote is a critical step in the re-entry process, one that can help formerly incarcerated individuals feel like full citizens. Those who were incarcerated understand best the impact that government policies have on our lives and why participating in democracy is so important.

State felony disenfranchisement laws can be extremely confusing. And because they vary so widely, they lead to the persistent misperception that most people with convictions can never vote again. In fact, while at least 23 million Americans have been convicted of felonies, only 5 million to 6 million are actually disenfranchised under law.

Americans returning from federal prison face an even more confusing landscape. On top of the already complicated patchwork of state laws, some states treat federal convictions differently than in-state convictions — both for determining whether a federal conviction means the loss of voting rights and for the steps that an individual will have to take to get rights restored.

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