By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Monday, September 26, 2016, the Campaign Legal Center, the Voting Rights Institute, and the law firm of Jenner & Block filed a lawsuit in Alabama district court on behalf of US citizens with past felony convictions who have been denied the right to vote due to the State’s laws regarding the loss of voting privileges after a felony conviction.
Their lawsuit, Thompson versus Alabama, calls for the court to rule that current Alabama law is racially discriminatory, unconstitutional and a violation of the Voting Rights Act. The lawsuit also asserts a theory that they hope could sharply limit the scope of permissible felon disenfranchisement nationwide, arguing that the 14th Amendment does not allow the blanket disenfranchisement of citizens for what plaintiffs call, “minor non-violent offenses that are irrelevant to voting.”
The Executive Director of the Campaign Legal Center, Gerry Hebert said, “Today we begin the journey on behalf of a quarter million Alabama citizens who have felony convictions and who have been disenfranchised by this system. Citizens with past felony convictions work and pay taxes, and should have a say in deciding their community’s and the nation’s laws that directly impact their lives. Denying these citizens with past felony convictions the opportunity to fully integrate as members of society sends the message that they will permanently be treated as second-class citizens.”
Nationwide 5.85 million citizens are prevented from voting because of their past criminal history. In Alabama, the law disenfranchises about 15 percent of black adults. More than 130,00- Alabama Blacks are barred from voting because of criminal records.
Some states have no restrictions on voting. Most states limit disenfranchisement to time in prison or on parole and probation. Only Alabama and 11 other states permanently disenfranchise some or all citizens convicted of felony offenses.
Plaintiffs say that Alabama’s law is particularly discriminatory because it requires voters pay fines and fees to restore their voting rights. A requirement that a US citizen with a past felony conviction must pay “all legal financial obligations in order to be eligible to restore her voting rights constitutes a poll tax and violates the 24th Amendment,” the complaint asserts.
The voting rights counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, Danielle Long said, “Felony disenfranchisement laws have the undeniable effect of diminishing the political power of minority communities. As our legal complaint shows, these laws are rooted in the racially discriminatory policies of the Jim Crow era, continue to primarily harm people of color and distort our democracy.”
Lang asserted, “In Alabama, a wealthy person with a conviction may be able to vote whereas an impoverished person with a conviction cannot. Even ignoring the starkly disproportionate discriminatory effect of felon disenfranchisement, the requirement that someone pay back ballooning court fees and fines in order to vote has a much harsher impact on the minority community.”
Larry Newby (age 60 from Huntsville) said that he wants to see his rights restored, as well as other individuals he personally knows who are in similar circumstances. “I would like to have an opportunity to put in a choice for the president. I’d like to vote for not just for president, but in my district and for governor. Having my right to vote back would make me feel respected as a person. It would be something I would be grateful for – to have the opportunity to go register to vote and go to the polls. You do your time, you pay your debt to society, so you ought to be able to return back home and to your society and be able to speak freely and vote freely.”
As Blacks tend to historically vote Democratic, the Alabama Democratic Party would benefit greatly from higher enfranchisement. Legislation has been introduced repeatedly in the Alabama legislature over the last several years that would make the process for felons in Alabama to get their voting rights restored. Most of those efforts have failed to advance to the floor of either house.