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AG wants felons to apply to get voting rights back

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — About one out of every 14 voting-age Alabamians can’t vote because of felony convictions. Restoring their voting rights has created confusion in county courthouses and is about to create a battle in the Legislature.

Attorney General Troy King said he plans to propose a constitutional amendment that would return to Alabama’s old system, requiring all felons to apply to the state parole board to get their voting rights restored after finishing their punishment.

His constitutional amendment would apply to future felons, not those already in the system.

“It clarifies the law,” King said. “It makes it easier for election officials to do their jobs. And it preserves the integrity of our system.”

It also creates more work for the state parole board, which is already struggling under a heavy load of probation and parole cases. “It would be a nightmare,” Sarah Still, manager of the board’s pardons division, said Friday.

Most states automatically restore the voting rights of felons when they complete their sentences and pay all of their fines and restitution. The Alabama parole board favors an automatic system, according to Still and Cynthia Dillard, the board’s acting executive director.

Barred from voting

A study by the Washington-based Sentencing Project and another group estimates that more than 250,000 Alabamians are barred from voting because of felony convictions.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, said the national trend is toward lowering restrictions on people who have completed their sentences. “It has become a very mainstream position,” he said.

But that’s not the case in the Alabama Legislature. In an October interview, House Minority Leader Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said “pretty much the entire Republican caucus” opposes automatic restoration. Going to the parole board for restoration is part of “paying a price for breaking the law,” he said.

For years, all felons in Alabama lost their voting rights when they went to prison. When they completed their sentences and paid all their debts to society, they could apply to the parole board to get their rights back. The process often took months, but a new procedure in 2003 cut the time to 50 days for some types of former felons. More serious offenses took longer, including a hearing before the parole board.

Confusion arose last year over court rulings that said state law only denies the right to vote to felons convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude.

Those convicted of crimes not involving moral turpitude retain the right to vote.

The ruling led to about 2,500 new voters for the election Nov. 7, with some prisoners even casting absentee ballots from jail. But questions arose about many more because voter registrars were unsure whether their crimes involved moral turpitude.

Moral turpitude

King said court rulings make it clear that some crimes, such as murder, rape, robbery, forgery and tax evasion, involve moral turpitude.

And there are some crimes, like drug possession, where the courts have said moral turpitude is not involved.

But there are hundreds of crimes the courts have never addressed, and even though election officials want a complete list, King said it can’t be done without being completely subjective.

The parole board, meanwhile, has been trying to sort through the confusion, including telling more than 600 who had applied to get their voting rights restored that they never lost them because their crimes didn’t involve moral turpitude.

“It seems to me what we need in this state is a bright line,” King said. But he said that line can only be drawn for future felonies. It can’t apply to those who’ve already been to prison.

To get that bright line, King said he will ask the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment saying “we are not going to allow felons to vote.” It would be a part of their sentence, like restitution, King said.

Then when they finish their sentences and pay all their debt to society, they could apply to the parole board to get their voting rights back.

No thanks, Dillard said.

“Our officers have more than enough to do without doing investigations. And our board has more than enough to do without holding hearings,” she said.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which filed the suit that led to the decision in Jefferson County, sides with the parole board.

“The problem with the attorney general’s approach is it makes having a stake in society more onerous and burdensome,” assistant counsel Ryan Haygood said Friday.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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