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Disenfranchisement News: Illinois jail allows in-person voting

July 20, 2017
Cook County Jail allowed in-person voting for the first time in almost a decade, lawsuit seeks to have Alabama educate people about new voting rights law, and more in Disenfranchisement News.

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Lawsuit seeks to have Alabama educate people about new voting rights law

The Campaign Legal Center is suing Alabama to force the state to educate residents about a new state law that could restore voting rights to thousands of people with felony records. The newly enacted Definition of Moral Turpitude Act established a list of less than 50 crimes that would result in a person losing their voting rights. Previously, Alabama stripped people of their right to vote if they committed any “felony involving moral turpitude,” yet never provided a definitive list of such felonies. Thus, the decision of who was allowed to vote varied from county to county and was essentially left up to the local registrars. After the new law passed, Secretary of State John Merrill said his office would not take action to help those previously disenfranchised understand that they may now be eligible to vote.

“The state is responsible for correcting the confusion that has wrongly disenfranchised voters for decades. In order for HB 282 to have any meaningful effect, Alabama must notify voters about their right and ensure they are able to successfully cast a ballot going forward,” said Danielle Lang, a lawyer at Campaign Legal Center.

The plaintiffs also asked the court to force the state to notify and automatically reinstate voting rights to those who were ineligible to vote during the last two years. Furthermore, they request that the state produce a list of everyone who has been prohibited from voting due to a criminal record over the last two years, and to create a public voter education plan targeting those with convictions.  

Cook County, IL jail allows in-person voting

This past March, for the first time in almost a decade, eligible voters incarcerated in Cook County Jail were allowed to vote in-person rather than by mail. In 2005, Illinois amended a law that prohibited people in jail from voting. However, the ability to vote depends mostly on having supportive jail administrators and election officials to help facilitate voter education drives. Some election officials work closely with their county jails, while others put the onus on those incarcerated to alert election officials and staff that they want to register or vote. “I believe everybody entitled to vote should be able to vote,” said Cook County Clerk David Orr, who oversees county elections. “It’s a matter of human dignity and how society chooses to treat those in jail.”

According to the Chicago Reporter, the Cook County Jail is one of just a few in the country that allows in-person voter registration and voting. The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law has spearheaded the effort for the past year, sending volunteers to the jail every weekend to do voter education and registration for people awaiting trial. In the 2016 election, 1,200 ballots came from Cook County Jail, which has a population of around 7,000 people and is 74% black. “People that are currently detained are impacted by those very same policies that our elected officials are making critical decisions on,” said Mbekeani-Wiley of the Shriver Center. “They should be part of that process.”

In 2015, 700,000 people were held in jails across the country—of those, 63% were being held pretrial and were therefore eligible to vote. Currently, there isn’t a system in place that accurately tracks whether or not eligible voters in jails are being denied the right to vote.  But advocacy groups concerned with voter ID laws and other policies that disenfranchise voters of color should also turn their attention to expanding voting access in jails, says Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project.

Civil rights groups challenge voting ban for 70,000 Louisianians on felony probation and parole

The Advancement Project will join Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) to appeal a state court’s March 13th decision to uphold a law that bans 70,000 people on community supervision from voting. The original lawsuit was filed by VOTE on behalf of eight individuals with felony convictions. VOTE argued that the language in the 1974 state Constitution that prohibits people who are “under an order of imprisonment” from voting was intended only to be applied to people in prison, not those on probation or parole. In 1975 and 1976, the state Legislature enacted laws that expanded the “under an order of imprisonment” definition to include those on parole and probation. Judicial District Judge Tim Kelley rejected VOTE’s lawsuit, saying that, while unfair, he believed it was the intent of the Constitutional framers to deny the vote to those on community supervision.  

“How long do people have to pay?” said Denise Lieberman, senior attorney and co-program director of the Power and Democracy Program at the Advancement Project. “When you look at some of the plaintiffs in this case, you have people whose crime took place 30 or 40 years ago. They were held accountable, they paid for their crime, and they were judged fit to be put back into the community where they have worked, paid taxes and raised families. They are citizens in every sense of the word except for the fact that they have no voice. There is really no valid legal reason or public service reason for this to be the case.”

Virginia Gov. McAuliffe forced to turn over defunct list of people with felony convictions

Under a civil settlement with Republican Loudoun County prosecutor Jim Plowman, Governor Terry McAuliffe agreed to turn over a list of people whose voting rights he tried to restore last year under a now-defunct executive order.  In July 2016, the state Supreme Court ruled that McAulife had exceeded his authority under the state Constitution when he issued an executive order restoring voting rights to 206,000 people en masse, rather than individually. Despite the Court overturning McAulife’s executive order, Plowman still wanted the original list of names in order to continue highlighting errors in the Governor’s sweeping attempt to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions. McAuliffe had intended for his voting rights restoration order to only cover those who had completed their felony sentence, but his original list mistakenly included 132 people who were still in custody and several people still on probation in other states. Plowman hopes exposing the list will help make the case for more vetting before people with felony convictions can have their rights restored.

“Nothing about the old database relates to the governor’s current individualized process, which the Virginia Supreme Court has upheld, and which has successfully restored over 156,000 ex-felons’ rights,” said Brian Coy, a spokesperson for McAuliffe. “The governor remains committed to restoration of civil rights and hopes that Republicans will finally accept that giving people who have served their time a voice in their society is the right thing to do.”

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