On Monday, citizens barred from voting in Alabama due to a past felony conviction filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging Alabama's felony disenfranchisement law, claiming the law is racially discriminatory, unconstitutional, and violates the Voting Rights Act.
After the Fifteenth Amendment barring racial discrimination in voting was adopted in 1870, Southern states and others continued to disenfranchise black voters through poll taxes, literacy tests, and violent intimidation, killing many black people who tried to vote.
Today, years after the Voting Rights Act banned poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and other policies that barred African Americans from voting, one in every 13 black adults in America is disenfranchised as a result of racially discriminatory felony disenfranchisement laws.
In a statement about the filing, the Campaign Legal Center (CLC), which is one of the law firms that filed the suit, said 5.85 million Americans are barred from voting nationwide because they have a felony conviction. In Alabama, the law disenfranchises about 15 percent of black adults, or more than 130,000 African American citizens.
Alabama is one of 12 states that permanently disenfranchise some or all people convicted of felony offenses, CLC said.
The lawsuit argues that Alabama's law is particularly discriminatory because it requires voters to pay fines and fees in order to get back their voting rights, which has a harsher impact on minority communities.
"Felony disenfranchisement laws have the undeniable effect of diminishing the political power of minority communities,” said Danielle Lang, CLC's voting rights counsel. “As our legal complaint shows, these laws are rooted in the racially discriminatory policies of the Jim Crow era, [and] continue to primarily harm people of color and distort our democracy.”
In 2014, then-United States Attorney General Eric Holder condemned felony disenfranchisement laws as racially discriminatory and counter-productive. "[P]ermanent exclusion from the civic community does not advance any objective of our criminal justice system," the nation's top prosecutor said. Instead, by perpetuating the stigma and isolation that formerly incarcerated people experience, these laws "undermine the reentry process and defy the principles – of accountability and rehabilitation – that guide our criminal justice policies."
The lead plaintiff, 60-year-old Larry Newby, has been barred from voting in Alabama since he was convicted of receiving stolen property in 2003, even though he served a four-year prison sentence and completed parole this year.
"You do your time, you pay your debt to society, so you ought to be able to return back home and your society and be able to speak freely and vote freely,” he said.