California Could Allow More Felons to Vote, in Major Shift

Paige St. John, Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2015

California election officials are reversing a policy that prevents 45,000 felons from casting ballots, placing the state in the forefront of a movement to boost voting rights for ex-criminals.

California has until now maintained that state law prohibits felons from voting not only when they are in prison or on parole but also when they are under community supervision.

Secretary of State Alex Padilla said Tuesday that the state would now back voting rights for felons on community supervision, which is generally overseen by county probation departments.

The shift affects a growing number of felons because under the state’s effort to reduce prison and jail crowding, the vast majority of nonviolent offenders are being released into community supervision programs.

Padilla said the decision was “compelled by conscience.”

“It is not lost on me that persons of color are disproportionately represented in our correctional institutions and that undeniable disparities exist,” he added.

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The California decision settles a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups over whether this class of felons can vote.

To ease prison overcrowding, California lawmakers in 2011 passed laws that require lower-level felons to serve their time in jails or under county supervision instead of state lockups and parole. Padilla’s predecessor, Debra Bowen, had instructed county election supervisors to extend the state’s felon voting ban to those offenders. She cited a staff opinion that voting restrictions don’t change just because post-prison release “is labeled something other than ‘parole.’”

An Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled in May 2014 that more than just the name had changed–that California’s prison realignment law created a new class of offender. Padilla inherited Bowen’s appeal of that ruling when he took office in January.

The settlement decree requires Padilla’s office to give new directions to county election officials, and to “use his best efforts” to make sure new voter-education materials reach county probation offices overseeing community supervisions.

He also agreed to support a state payment of $215,000 to the civil rights groups that filed the lawsuit.

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