Fighting for the Rights of Voters Behind Bars
A coalition of concerned citizens in Alabama is shaking up the GOP with their goal of registering voters in the most unlikely of places -- state prisons. A voter registration drive led last week by Rev. Kenny Glasgow, began registering prisoners to vote, a right guaranteed under Alabama's State Constitution, so they could cast absentee ballots.
The drive was originally embraced by Richard Allen, the commissioner of corrections in Alabama, but it was stopped when he received a letter on Thursday from the Alabama Republican Party opposing the drive. Its chairman, Mike Hubbard, told Mr. Allen that the party supports voter registration but not for prisoners, citing a need for safeguards against possible voter fraud.
Rev. Glasgow challenged this statement and said, "Voter registration drives are an essential part of our democracy. This action by the GOP and the Department of Corrections smacks of voter intimidation. Our focus isn't politics, its restoration. We're just doing what the Bible says, visiting people in prison and ministering to them. The chairman of the Republican Party and the chairman of the Democratic Party can go into prisons with us and monitor the registration process to make sure it's nonpartisan, if that's a concern."
In Alabama, nearly 250,000 people have been stripped of their right to vote due to a felony conviction. But, in a 2006 court ruling which was the result of a lawsuit by Ryan Haygood of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a judge found that only those persons convicted of felonies of "moral turpitude" lose their right to vote. The judge found that certain felonies -- such as drug possession -- do not constitute crimes of moral turpitude and, therefore, individuals convicted of those crimes do not lose their voting rights, even during incarceration.
Rev. Glasgow's organization, Alabama-based The Ordinary People's Society (TOPS) and their national partner, the Drug Policy Alliance, estimate that more than 50,000 people convicted in Alabama of felonies falling outside the "moral turpitude" definition have been wrongly denied their right to vote, or anyway believe they lost that right due to a felony conviction.
While drug use is proportionally equal across all racial lines, African Americans are incarcerated for drug crimes at much higher rates than whites. Blacks make up only 26 percent of Alabama's population but are nearly 60 percent of the prison population. And, for every white person in an Alabama jail, there are about four black people.
"We've got to start restoring people's lives by providing treatment, by restoring the right to vote," said Reverend Kenneth Glasgow, TOPS executive director and state coordinator of their New Bottom Line campaign. "When a person gets a felony conviction, they can lose more than their voting rights; they can lose public assistance, public housing and financial aid for school. The drug war has become a war on people and we now spend more on incarceration than on treatment. Why do we spend more on producing criminals than producing citizens? We need a new bottom line."
The right to vote is an important part of the rehabilitation process and should be given to those who have paid their debt to society. An estimated 5.3 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions. A few years ago, I was one of those Americans. I was on parole and could not vote after serving 12 years of a 15-to-life sentence for a nonviolent drug crime under New York's draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws. After my release, I felt the pain of felony disenfranchisement since it seemed I was being further punished for my crime. I was elated when, after waiting for five years, I got off parole and was able to cast my first vote. I felt I was fully welcomed back by society as a citizen.
"Alabama state law makes it clear that people incarcerated for simple drug possession never lose their right to vote, even while incarcerated," said Glasgow. "The GOP and the Alabama Department of Corrections cannot decide on their own which constituencies are going to have access to the vote, and which will be barred from it. We live in a democracy, after all."