ACLU Sues to Reverse Alabama Ex-Felon Disenfranchisement
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MONTGOMERY, AL -- The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Alabama filed a lawsuit today challenging the state's voter disenfranchisement laws and practices as unconstitutional. According to its state constitution, Alabama may deny voting rights to individuals who have been convicted of felonies involving "moral turpitude." Although this term is not defined, the constitution clearly states that only the legislature can decide which felonies qualify under this category. In its lawsuit today, the ACLU charges that the state is disfranchising thousands of Alabamians under a much broader category of convictions than is permissible under the constitution, relying in part on an unlawful opinion issued by Alabama's attorney general.
"Alabama's disenfranchisement laws do not pass constitutional muster. It is immoral that election officials are wrongly disfranchising thousands of eligible voters through a subjective interpretation of the law that ignores the state constitution and the legislature's will," said Laughlin McDonald, Director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project. "When it comes to something as fundamental as the right to vote, arbitrariness has no place in the law."
The Alabama legislature adopted a list of about 15 serious felonies that fit the moral turpitude definition for disenfranchisement, including murder, impeachment, treason, rape and various sex related offenses. But in 2005, Attorney General Troy King developed his own broader list of disfranchising felonies, as well as a short list of those that do not fall into this category. The attorney general's list includes 16 felonies that are disqualifying, including passing a bad check, and six that are not disqualifying, such as possession of controlled substances and DUI-related offenses. Other felonies were simply not addressed. In addition, election administrators across the state are currently disqualifying citizens from voting for felony convictions that neither the legislature nor the attorney general has ever listed as disfranchising offenses.
"The Alabama legislature has already created a list of disfranchising crimes and any other attempts to expand that list not only violate state and federal law, but also undermine the democratic process by prohibiting thousands of eligible people from casting a vote in November," said Nancy Abudu, staff counsel with the ACLU Voting Rights Project. "The court must fix this problem before more citizens are unlawfully disfranchised -- and with the election right around the corner, time is of the essence."
The ACLU is representing individuals who have been wrongly disenfranchised by the state of Alabama.
"I have voted many times before. My father taught me this is what every American should do. But when I tried to register a few weeks ago I was told I couldn't," said Annette McWashington Pruitt, a plaintiff in today's case who received her first and only felony conviction in 2003 for receiving stolen property, an offense that has never been considered disfranchising by the legislature. "My youngest son just turned 18 and is going into the Navy. I have another son in Iraq right now. Voting is really my duty because it represents the freedom my sons are protecting overseas."
Kristen Hall, another plaintiff in today's case said, "I have never voted before, but the election this year is really important and I want to make sure my voice is heard."
Alabama law allows a person convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude to apply for voting rights restoration from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, but the applicant must have paid all fines, court costs, fees and restitution associated with his or her sentence before becoming eligible to vote again. Denying the right to vote based on one's failure or inability to pay these fees discriminates on the basis of wealth.
In today's lawsuit, the ACLU seeks to block state election administrators from disqualifying any voter who has a felony conviction not on the moral turpitude list developed by the legislature. In addition, the ACLU also asks the court to strike down the voter restoration process' discriminatory fee provision.
"There is no compelling or legitimate governmental interest in keeping a wealth-based voter restoration system that is nothing more than a modern-day poll tax," said Olivia Turner, Executive Director of the ACLU of Alabama. "Everyone knows Alabama's ugly voting rights history. It is disappointing that discrimination based on income, and completely arbitrary disenfranchisement, continues to permeate our state voting system. These practices need to end."
ACLU attorneys on today's case are McDonald and Abudu of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, and Allison Neal of the ACLU of Alabama.
The complaint in today's case is available at: www.aclu.org/votingrights/exoffenders/36053lgl20080721.html .
More information on the ACLU Voting Rights Project is available at: www.votingrights.org.
More information on the ACLU of Alabama is available at: www.aclualabama.org.