Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill is pushing for legislation to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people, a move supported by opinion leaders and a growing number of lawmakers.
Nationwide, nearly six million Americans are prevented from voting because of a past criminal conviction, including about 4.4 million people who are no longer incarcerated. Fifty 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.
Most states bar people from voting while they are incarcerated, but 12 states (Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming) do not automatically restore voting rights to people who have served their sentences. Alabama’s voting ban is permanent unless the individual obtains a pardon – an arduous process that can take many months to complete. Those convicted of a crime of “moral turpitude” cannot obtain a pardon and are permanently barred from voting under current Alabama law.
Alabama expanded disenfranchisement to all crimes involving “moral turpitude” — which applied to misdemeanors and even non-criminal acts — after the president of the 1901 constitutional convention argued the state needed to avert the “menace of Negro domination.” There is no clear definition of “moral turpitude,” and courts have applied it broadly to most violent felonies, fraud-related offenses, and drug crimes. As a result, Alabama has one of the nation’s highest disenfranchisement rates: 15 percent of African American adults and nearly a third of African American men in Alabama have lost the right to vote.
In 2015, then-United States Attorney General Eric Holder condemned felony disenfranchisement laws as unnecessary, unjust, and counterproductive. Last year, Alabama was one of 18 states that considered legislation to ease voting restrictions on people with felony convictions. Wyoming was the only state to pass such a bill.
In Kentucky, where all people with felony convictions are permanently disenfranchised, outgoing Governor Steve Beshear issued an executive order last November to automatically restore voting rights to over 100,000 people with nonviolent felony convictions who have completed their sentences. But his successor, Governor Matt Bevin, immediately reversed that order, saying that restoration of voting rights must be addressed by the legislature, where legislation to automatically restore voting rights to some people with felony convictions has been stalled in the Republican-controlled state senate.
This session, the Voter Disenfranchisement and Restoration of Voting Rights Exploratory Committee, chaired by Secretary of State Merrill, will recommend specific reforms to Alabama lawmakers. The leading proposal would require individuals to complete probation and pay restitution costs and court fees before becoming eligible to reapply for restoration of their voting rights. In an editorial last week, the Montgomery Advertiser opined that “those who have paid their dues in prison for low-level drug crimes and other non-violent offenses shouldn’t be permanently banned from voting” and called for automatic restoration of voting rights upon release from prison.
UPDATE: On Tuesday, February 9, Maryland’s legislature overturned Governor Larry Hogan’s veto of a bill to restore voting rights to people upon their release from prison. The bill provides for voting rights to be restored without requiring individuals to first complete probation or parole. More than 40,000 recently released citizens will regain the right to vote in time for this year’s election.