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Disenfranchisement News: CA grants voting rights to people serving felony sentences in jail

October 04, 2016
California governor restores voting rights to 50,000 people serving felony sentences in county jails, federal lawsuit seeks to overturn voting ban for people in Alabama with felony convictions, and more in our latest Disenfranchisement News.

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Californians serving felony sentences in jail now allowed to vote

Despite opposition from some law enforcement officials, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that will restore voting rights to as many as 50,000 people serving felony sentences in county jails. The legislation is an outgrowth of the state’s Realignment policy, which has diverted many individuals convicted of non-violent felonies from incarceration in state prison to local jails or community supervision. The bill also reaffirms the right for people with felony convictions on probation to vote. Some Republican lawmakers opposed the bill, saying it will compromise the integrity of elections and reward people for bad behavior. Assemblywoman Shirley Brown (D-San Diego), one of the authors of AB2466, said civic participation is critical to reducing recidivism, and this bill will “send a message to the nation that California will not stand for discrimination in voting.” The law goes into effect in 2017.

Federal lawsuit seeks to overturn voting ban for people in Alabama with felony convictions

The Greater Birmingham Ministries and 10 Alabamians with felony convictions filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming the state’s felony disenfranchisement law is an unconstitutional infringement on the right to vote, racist in its origins, disproportionately impacts people of color, and unfairly punishes people after they have completed their sentence. Alabama law strips people of their right to vote if they commit a “felony involving moral turpitude,” but the state doesn’t provide a definitive list of such felonies. The decision of who gets to vote varies from county to county and is essentially left up to the local registrars. In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court considered a case of two individuals barred from voting because of misdemeanor convictions involving moral turpitude. The Court ruled unanimously that the arbitrary language of “moral turpitude” was purposely included in the state Constitution as a way to keep blacks from voting. However, a decade after the ruling, the Alabama legislature voted to put the category of moral turpitude back into the Constitution, but only relating to felony offenses.

Alabamians convicted of certain felony convictions can apply to have their voting rights restored after they have completed their prison, parole and probation sentence and have paid all fines and fees associated with their case. Some of the plaintiffs in the suit have applied to have their voting rights restored, while others cannot afford to pay all the fines or have convictions that make them ineligible for restoration. Earlier this year, Republican Governor Robert Bentley signed legislation to speed up the voting rights restoration process, but the process remains “overly burdensome,” the lawsuit argues.

Secretary of state flags thousand of voters in Arkansas for removal from voting polls

In June 2016, Secretary of State Mark Martin’s office sent a faulty list of people to be removed from voting polls due to felony convictions to every county clerk’s office in the state. The list contained a large number of people who had previously had their voting rights restored, and another 4,000 voters who had never been convicted of a felony. Secretary Martin’s office sent a letter in July to the county offices, acknowledging that there may be potential errors in the data, and that it was the responsibility of the county offices to “proceed with caution” before removing voters. However, The Arkansas Times reported that the response to the faulty data has varied drastically from county to county. “Some clerks have reinstated every canceled registration and are now carefully vetting every case. Others, though, have automatically canceled everyone on their list and simply plan to reinstate voters on a case-by-case basis whenever individuals complain of the issue.” It is unclear how many eligible voters will be barred from voting in the upcoming election.

Virginia Supreme Court clears path for governor to continue restoring voting rights

In a unanimous vote, the Supreme Court of Virginia recently rejected a request from state Republicans to find Governor Terry McAuliffe in contempt of court over his ongoing efforts to restore voting rights to people who have completed their felony sentences. In July, the Supreme Court agreed with Republican leadership that Gov. McAuliffe had exceeded his authority under the state Constitution when he restored voting rights en masse to over 200,000 people instead of individually. Republicans then took Gov. McAuliffe back to court after he announced that he had individually restored voting rights to 13,000 people, and stated he would continue to similarly restore voting rights to the rest of the 200,000 Virginians who have completed their felony sentence. “It is my hope that the court’s validation of the process we are using will convince Republicans to drop their divisive efforts to prevent Virginians from regaining their voting rights and focus their energy and resources on making Virginia a better place to live for the people who elected all of us to lead,” said Gov. McAuliffe.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., one of the Republicans who sued Gov. McAuliffe, recently proposed a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to people convicted of nonviolent felony offenses who have finished their sentences. The amendment would strip the governor’s power to restore rights, meaning that people convicted of violent felony offenses would no longer have a path to regain their voting rights. Some Democratic lawmakers have also proposed a constitutional amendment to completely end all forms of the state’s felony disenfranchisement law, which would align Virginia with Maine and Vermont as the only states that have no restrictions on voting for people in prison.

Chattanooga, Tennessee creates website to help people regain their voting rights

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and other community leaders recently announced the launch of a new website to help educate people with criminal records on how to restore their voting rights and have their records expunged. The website, restoremyrights.com, provides users with a questionnaire to determine whether they meet the eligibility requirements for restoration or expungement, and resources to complete the necessary documentation. Tennessee allows only those convicted of certain felonies to apply to have their rights restored upon completion of their prison, parole and probation sentence.

 
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