Campbell Robertson, New York Times, September 27, 2016
Constance Todd, 70 years old and a diligent voter in elections local and national, did not know what to make of the letter she got from the local registrar this month.
“You have been convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude,” it read, apparently referring to a conviction for a series of bad checks from 20 years ago, “which disqualifies you from voting under Amendment 579 of the Constitution of Alabama.”
A puzzled Ms. Todd gathered the official documents she keeps on hand, including the photo ID she had been required to obtain for voting in Alabama, and called her son, Timothy Lanier. He knew exactly what this was about. He knew, from a similar letter he had received himself. He also knew from his long days at the prison library learning about state laws by poring over the State Constitution.
And, as it just so happened, Mr. Lanier is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed on Monday in federal court in Alabama, claiming that the state law stripping the vote from any person “convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude”–a law that has left more than 250,000 adults in the state ineligible to vote–is racially discriminatory, indefensibly vague and flagrantly unconstitutional.
Such a law, the suit alleges, is racist in its origins and is biased in its effect, disenfranchising roughly 15 percent of Alabama’s black voting age population, compared with fewer than 5 percent of whites. The suit argues that bias lies in the crimes generally chosen as involving moral turpitude–there are multiple interpretations of the crimes in that category–and in the requirement that fines and restitution be paid before the right to vote can be granted again, a condition that falls harder on the poor.
As the country’s incarceration rate grew over the past three decades, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit group, laws like the one in Alabama left nearly six million people ineligible to vote by 2010. But over the past 15 years, said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, there has been a broad and largely successful movement against these laws.
Still, there are outspoken opponents of this trend, who argue that the ability of felons to vote again, even if attainable, should not be automatic, to reflect the seriousness of criminal conduct. Eleven states prohibit some or all felons from voting permanently, barring a pardon or other government action. Alabama, like several other states, allows some felons to regain voting eligibility; in four states–Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia–all of those convicted of felonies permanently lose their right to vote. In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, this year issued a sweeping executive order that restored voting rights to 206,000 ex-offenders, an order that was struck down in July by the Virginia Supreme Court.
While the lawsuit filed in Alabama on Monday challenges felony disenfranchisement generally, its focus is on the state’s “moral turpitude” clause, a phrase that is not formally defined in law. Instead, it leaves the decision of who gets to vote, essentially, up to the local registrar.
For the second year in a row, a bill made its way through the Alabama Legislature in the past session, and with the backing of high-level Republicans as well as voting rights advocates, it looked as if it might pass. In one of the late versions of the bill, said the Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, a veteran of battles over felony disenfranchisement in Alabama, all drug-related convictions except for trafficking would have been removed from the moral turpitude category, which would have immediately opened voter eligibility to thousands.
But in a sign of the national trajectory on this issue, some of the main criticism of the bill came from members of the Democratic black caucus who believed it did not go far enough; indeed, some were mulling the best way forward having heard the news that a lawsuit was in the works. Eventually the caucus backed the bill, but the session ended before a vote.
“That would have given us at least 50 to 100,000 more voters this election cycle,” Mr. Glasgow said, though he did see some limited success in the passage of a law streamlining the process for some felons to be declared eligible to vote.
Many who have been convicted of felonies simply assume that they have permanently lost the right to vote. But given all the ambiguity around who is and who is not eligible, others try to register to see what happens. Often, the ambiguity only continues.
Martha Shearer, 53, and an organizer with Greater Birmingham Ministries, a nonprofit organization that is a plaintiff in the suit, has been voting for years here. She had a felony drug conviction nearly three decades ago, but her brother, who also had a conviction, tried to register to vote himself and was rejected. So she assumed that registrars policed eligibility and that she was in the clear.
Last year, Ms. Shearer went to the State Board of Pardons and Paroles with the hope of gaining a full pardon. She showed an official her paperwork, her two master’s degrees, her uninterrupted work history. The woman asked if Ms. Shearer wanted to vote again.
“I said, ‘Well, I’ve been voting,’” Ms. Shearer said.
The answer startled her.
“She told me,” Ms. Shearer recalled, “that I had been committing a crime.”