MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama’s policy of stripping convicted felons’ of their right to vote is unconstitutional and steeped in a history of racial injustice, a group of plaintiffs say in federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the law.
The Greater Birmingham Ministries and 10 Alabamians who are not allowed to vote because of a past felony conviction filed the lawsuit Monday in Montgomery federal court. They argue that the blanket ban is an unconstitutional infringement on the right to vote, unfairly punishes people long after their sentences are complete and disproportionately impacts minority communities.
“It is inextricably tied to Alabama’s long history of denying black citizens voting rights and equal access to the polls, using the criminal justice system to achieve those goals,” lawyers for the plaintiffs wrote in the suit. The lawsuit quoted 2014 statistics from the Sentencing Project that estimated more than 260,000 people were blocked from voting in Alabama. Nearly half of those were African-American and equated to 15 percent of the adult black population.
Ten individual plaintiffs are named in the suit but they are asking the court to declare it a class action.
“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,” said Gerry Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington D.C.-based group that’s providing lawyers for the suit.
The Alabama Constitution says people convicted of felonies involving “moral turpitude” are no longer be able to vote, although politicians have disagreed through the years over what crimes should be on that list. People who have completed their sentences can apply to the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles to have voting rights restored but only if they have paid all court fines and fees associated with their case. Some crimes, including murder, are excluded from the restoration process.
The Board of Pardon and Paroles said in its 2015 annual report that 572 people had their voting rights restored that year.
The lawsuit argues the process is cumbersome and the payment requirement is “nothing more than a modern day poll tax” that blocks people from voting based on their ability to pay.
The Alabama attorney general’s office did not have an immediate comment on the lawsuit. A spokesman for Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said the office has a policy of not commenting on ongoing litigation.
Most states put some restriction on felon voting, but many return those rights automatically at the completion of a prison sentence or probation. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia automatically give some, or most, ex-felons their voting right’s back upon the completion of their sentence, according to an April report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Some of the plaintiffs have applied to have their voting rights restored. Others have completed their sentences but cannot vote because they cannot afford to pay all the fines in their cases, or have convictions that make them ineligible to apply for restoration.
“You do your time, you pay your debt to society, so you ought to be able to return back home and your society and be able to speak freely law and vote freely,” 60-year-old Larry Newby, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement issued through the Campaign Legal Center. Newby has past convictions for theft.
The Alabama Legislature in 2016 approved legislation to try to speed up the voting rights restoration application process. The law set a timeframe for decisions, required prisons to post information about the process and clarified unpaid fines in unrelated court cases could not block a person from voting.