Cross-posted at my blog.
Individuals convicted of a felony in the state of Alabama have had an easier path to get their voting rights restored since 2003. However, the Alabama constitution bars those convicted of a "felony involving moral turpitude" from voting at all. "Moral turpitude" is is a legal concept in the United States that refers to "conduct that is considered contrary to community standards of justice, honesty, or good morals".
Republican Alabama Governor Bob Riley recently decided to add hundreds of crimes to the list of felony convictions that bar a person from voting based on his interpretation of "moral turpitude."
Previously the Alabama Attorney General had determined that 70 of the state's 575 felony crimes qualify as such crimes which was approved by the Administrative Office of Courts. Now, lawyers for the Riley administration claim some 480 of those felonies are crimes of "moral turpitude."
According to the Birmingham News:
A statewide computer system for the past 11 months has been noting convictions for more than 400 crimes that Gov. Bob Riley's administration deemed to be felonies of moral turpitude - even though officials with the Administrative Office of Courts said they were assured by Riley's office only a shorter list of 70 felonies developed by the attorney general's office were being checked.
Suddenly, in an election year, Riley has decided that he alone knows what crimes are of a moral turpitude and it's almost all of them. In a time when Democratic voter registration around the country (including the south) has outpaced Republicans two to one, this is an obvious attempt by the Republican governor of Alabama to suppress votes.
If you don't believe me, take a look for yourself at some of the crimes determined by Riley to be of a moral turpitude and that (if convicted) will bar a citizen from voting in Alabama. Both lists from the governor's office and the office of the attorney general can be found in PDF format here.
Here are just a few of Riley's moral turpitude crimes according to the Associated Press:
But the governor's legal aides also classified about 370 other crimes as involving moral turpitude, including attempted arson, breaking and entering a vehicle, attempted burglary, criminal mischief, possession of burglary tools and burning a U.S. flag or cross.
The list also includes absentee balloting fraud, cruelty to a dog or cat, domestic violence, forgery, killing livestock illegally, leaving the scene of an accident with an injury, disrupting a funeral, ethics violations and conspiring to set an illegal brush fire.
The Administrative Office of Courts said the governor's office has no legal authority to classify so many crimes as involving moral turpitude.
First, I don't even see how anyone could be convicted of flag burning since it's protected as free speech as determined by the Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson. The list also adds shoplifting as a crime that will deny your right to vote if convicted in the state of Alabama. That's right, shoplifting! Now, I agree that many of the crimes on Riley's list could be interpreted as being of a moral turpitude, but some are just ridiculous. This totally kills my plans to disrupt a funeral by setting an illegal brush fire. :P
The governor alone should not be making this determination, as the Anniston Star pointed out in a recent editorial:
Maybe Gov. Bob Riley is right. Maybe a person should be denied the right to vote if they are convicted of disrupting a funeral, caught attempting a burglary or are found to have engaged in criminal mischief. If these are felonies, and if the law is interpreted narrowly, then that is what should happen.
But is this a decision the governor's office should make?
Apparently not. After months of denying that the list was being used by registrars in that way, the governor's office admitted that it erred by allowing this practice. However, the governor's office dismissed as "absurd" the charge that this was "part of some conspiracy to prevent people from voting."
This page takes the governor at his word. However, conspiracy or not, people were told that they could not vote when apparently they could. And with the presidential election less than a month away, the office of the Secretary of State is trying to find out the extent of the problem and see what can be done to rectify it, if anything.
It's good that the Secretary of State is trying to address this issue. However, the problem will not go away until the Legislature clearly defines what "moral turpitude" is when it comes to denying anyone the right to vote and then lists the crimes that fall into this category.
Luckily, there's somebody fighting for our rights! The ACLU filed a lawsuit a few months ago against the state Alabama over this issue when the attorney general tried to add to the list or moral turpitude crimes.
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.
The Associated Press writes:
The ACLU filed the lawsuit in July on behalf of three ex-felons who want to vote in the Nov. 4 presidential election. One of the three had actually tried to register in Jefferson County, but was never given a form because a registrar told her she couldn't vote.
The ACLU had hoped to turn the lawsuit into a class-action case on behalf of ex-felons statewide and clear up the confusion over voting rights.
At issue is a law passed by the Legislature that says felons who committed crimes of moral turpitude can't vote, but other felons can. The law does not classify which crimes are in each category.
The latest news on the ACLU lawsuit is is not good, according to the Associated Press, the judge may dismiss the case.
Voter registrars could have to wait awhile longer to learn which felons can vote — and just what constitutes "moral turpitude" — because a judge said Wednesday she may dismiss a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union over the issue.
With voter registration at record levels, county voter registrars have been struggling to figure out which ex-felons can sign up and which can't.
During a hearing Wednesday, Montgomery Circuit Judge Tracy McCooey told ACLU attorneys she is troubled that the ACLU's three plaintiffs filed suit before they filled out voter registration forms and were officially rejected by county voter registrars.
"You are asking me to have a role I shouldn't have," McCooey told the attorneys. She said she would issue an official ruling soon.
I'm surprised by the lack of reporting on this issue and the fact that people in my home state aren't outraged. I've had a few serious discussions about it on the comment board for my hometown newspaper, but other that that, very few are writing or talking about this.
One of the crimes the governor has on his list as a moral turpitude is the attempt to influence an election. Perhaps Bob Riley should have his right to vote taken away for his obvious attempt to suppress voters.
UPDATE: The Associated Press is reporting that today, October 10, 2008 the judge did indeed throw out the ACLU case against the state of Alabama.
A Montgomery judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union over registering ex-felons to vote.
Circuit Judge Tracy McCooey said Friday the ACLU's clients lacked legal standing to sue. Two had not tried to register to vote. The third client had attempted to register, but had not exhausted possible appeals in probate court before going to circuit court.
If these allegations are true, I really wish the ACLU would get their act together. I'm sure it wouldn't be hard to find someone who has actually tried to register and were denied because of the voter suppression efforts going on which have been expanded by the governor. As far as I know, the ACLU has yet to file a suit based on the new moral turpitude crimes added by Governor Riley. I'm sure they'll have plenty of clients after voting day when thousands are turned away from the polls for some minor crime from their past, but then won't it be too late?