HAPPY NICE-ISH TIMES TO ALABAMA where Governor Kay Ivey is planning to sign a bill making it a little easier for people to vote in the Heart of Dixie. Sure, your state illegally disenfranchised thousands of people and the federal courts were probably going to force you to knock it off anyway. But the important thing is, you’re doing the right thing now! Well, more or less.
In 1901, the Alabama legislature drafted a law with the stated intent to “establish white supremacy in this state” by disenfranchising black voters. Anyone convicted of a “crime of moral turpitude” lost the right to vote forever. But those crafty lawmakers left the definition of “moral turpitude” open to local interpretation, which meant the county registrar could apply his own criteria. You will be unsurprised to learn that brown people were barred from voting at rates several times higher than pink people. But you might be surprised to learn that a unanimous Supreme Court overturned the statute in 1985 for violating the Equal Protection Clause. Even Justice Rehnquist was like, “NOPE, TOO RACIST.”
And they all lived happily ever after!
Hahahaha! We make joke!
What really happened was that Alabama inserted almost identical wording about “moral turpitude” into a brand new law in 1996. But this time, they didn’t stand up on the floor of the Alabama House and shout, WE ARE TRYING TO STOP BLACK PEOPLE FROM VOTING! They just thought it to themselves silently. PROBABLY. And who says God doesn’t answer prayers!
Today, the statute has helped to disenfranchise 250,000 Alabamans, most of them black. Indeed, a stunning 15 percent of otherwise qualified black voters in Alabama can’t cast a ballot because of the state’s felony disenfranchisement law.
As with the 1901 statute, Alabama Legislators left the definition of “moral turpitude” largely up to the whims of local registrars. The statute included an incomplete list of turpitudinous crimes, and the Attorney General offered some conflicting guidance, but the result was an arbitrary patchwork where a person could lose the right to vote if she moved over the county line.
Perrion Roberts, a registered voter in Madison County, was charged with drug trafficking but pleaded guilty to drug possession and spent two years in prison before being paroled in 2006 to a halfway house in Jefferson County. There she registered and was able to vote. Then she moved back to Madison County, shortly before the 2008 election, and sought to transfer her voter registration there. She was told in a letter, however, that her voting rights had been denied because of her past conviction.
This is really not how voting is supposed to work. So the Campaign Legal Center filed a federal lawsuit arguing that the statute violated Alabama voters’ Constitutional rights to due process and enfranchisement and that it is void for vagueness. As a general rule of thumb, courts HATE laws that are so unclear that they permit subjective enforcement. Or perhaps judges are just happy to say, “No one could possibly interpret this law! Off with its head!” rather than confront more complicated Constitutional issues. In any event, the prospects were dim for a law that made voter eligibility dependent on the subjective discretion of individual county registrars. So Alabama finally passed a Definition of Moral Turpitude Act, and we should all congratulate them for being a little less racist than they were yesterday. Even better, once a convicted person has served her sentence and completed parole and probation, she can apply to the Board of Parole and Probation to get back her right to vote. See how fun civil rights can be???
The law conditions restoration of voting rights on payment of all fees, court costs, and restitution. So a guy who commits insider trading will probably have the money to get back in good standing with the Parole Board, but someone convicted of a low-level property crime probably can’t.
The lead plaintiff in the complaint is Treva Thompson, who was registered to vote in Madison County before she was convicted in 2005 of a class B felony, another property theft crime that carries a 20-year maximum sentence. Thompson never served any time in prison, but she was immediately removed from the list of eligible voters. In 2015, she asked to be reinstated on the voter rolls but was denied. The crime of theft, her local registrar concluded, was one of “moral turpitude.” Moreover, Thompson’s journey through the state’s justice system has left her saddled with $40,000 in legal debt she cannot pay, another disqualifying factor.
There is no provision that waives court costs for indigent filers. And conditioning voting rights on financial payment amounts to an unconstitutional poll tax. So, the Campaign Legal Center’s case goes on. But still, WELL DONE, ALABAMA!! KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!
ROLL TIDE! And don’t forget to tip your server!