Since 2000, former convicts have been eligible to vote, even if they are on probation or parole. But the county's buses won't yet be the vehicle to get the facts to ex-offenders who may not be aware of the rules change.
For six months, the ACLU and the League of Young Voters have tried to place placards in buses with that message, but the Port Authority has stymied their efforts. According to the groups, the agency has cited a long-standing policy against noncommercial advertising, though the ACLU points to several noncommercial ads ... Peace Corps advertisements and warnings to keep alert about possible terror threats, for example ... that have already graced local buses.
So, on Aug. 10, the groups filed suit to compel the authority to accept the placards.
"Port Authority cannot pick and choose which noncommercial ads it's going to run," says Vic Walczak, legal director of Pittsburgh's ACLU office. "Whether they don't like ex-offenders or don't think highly of voting rights, those are not legal justifications to refuse [to run the ads]."
Port Authority spokesperson Bob Grove declined comment, citing the pending litigation.
"We really wanted to have a public information campaign to get the word out," says Lisa Krebs, community education organizer with the ACLU and voting-rights director for the League of Young Voters. "Bus ads came up in talking with ex-offenders ... a lot of ex-offenders take the bus." Voting laws for ex-offenders vary by state, she adds, and many leave jail unaware that they are eligible.
The League has also registered voters in the county jail, signing up more than 100 since the end of June. It's also hired ex-offenders to register voters in their own communities. Ex-cons don't necessarily target fellow ex-offenders, Krebs says, but "it's likely they hit that demographic." League members are also distributing pamphlets outside the jail and through faith communities.
Still, bus ads remain a priority, especially with the fast-approaching deadline to register for November's elections. Concludes Walczak about efforts to approach the Port Authority: "It's like talking to a brick wall."