Debate rages on inmates’ right to vote

Many prisoners in Alabama jails have the right to vote, but a Democratic activist’s efforts to register them and supply them with absentee ballots halted when the chair of the state Republican Party complained

The Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, an advocate for inmate and felon voting rights and executive director of The Ordinary People Society, was going into state prisons and registering inmates, particularly those convicted of drug possession. Rep. Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, wrote a letter of complaint to Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen, who stopped the effort in its tracks.

Allen, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Bob Riley, declined to be interviewed.

He responded to Hubbard in a letter that referred to a 2005 opinion issued by Attorney General Troy King regarding registering felons to vote. He said Glasgow’s program did not violate the attorney general’s opinion regarding lawful visitation of inmates. But he shut the registration down based on another law that “makes it unlawful to use any state-owned property … to promote or advance candidates for election.”

Allen wrote that while it wasn’t clear if the act of assisting voters to register was a violation of those provisions, “I cannot expose departmental employees to that possibility.”

Glasgow, a Democrat from Dothan who served time for robbery and drug convictions, was surprised at the decision.

“It’s our ministry,” said Glasgow, who is a pastor. “I don’t know why anyone would try to politicize this, we’ve been doing it for seven years. It’s also the law. Why would anybody who is supposed to be upholding the law go against the law?”

But King backed the commissioner’s decision, saying it won’t keep inmates from voting, it will only keep outsiders from coming into the jail to make it easier for them to vote. Prisoners can register and apply for an absentee ballot just like any other Alabamian, he said.

“I don’t think the law requires special privileges for people who have broken our laws, or convicted felons, which is what this is really about,” King said. “They have the same opportunity as people who are homebound.”

King said it’s poor public policy to make it easier for people who are incarcerated to vote.

“Should we feel some special obligation to somebody who flaunts the law to vote than we do for homebound senior citizens to vote, or for the single mom who has to work?” he said. “We should not.”

Alabama law is muddy on the issue of which prisoners can vote and which are disenfranchised as part of their punishment.

Alabama felons convicted of “crimes of moral turpitude” cannot vote unless their voting rights have been restored — but there’s no definition of which specific crimes take away a convict’s voting rights.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, says there’s not much legal obligation to help eligible inmates vote, but the trend in the United States is to make it easier for all people to vote.

“The tradition has been to enact policies and practices that do encourage people to vote,” he said. “In many high schools across the country, election officials come in and meet with graduating seniors who are, or are about to be 18. The same thing is true of the Motor Voter law, which makes it very simple for people to register to vote when they get their driver’s license.”

But prisoners are left out, said Glasgow, and he believes getting them engaged in civic activities like voting is the first step toward making them productive citizens.

The Department of Corrections isn’t legally obligated to allow voter registration drives. But D’Linnell Finley, an Auburn Montgomery political scientist, believes there’s no good reason to disallow them.

“Certainly you would need the permission of the prison officials, because you do have to be concerned about safety and security,” Finley said. “But as long as they are not doing anything wrong, there is no reason to stop them.”

Denying those drives ignores the fact that many inmates don’t know whether they’ve lost their voting rights or not, or have any knowledge of the electoral process, he said. Voter drives help educate would-be voters.

Ryan Haygood, co-director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Political Participation Group, said Alabama’s laws on voting rights for prisoners are just too confusing. Haygood won a 2006 lawsuit that saw a Jefferson County judge order the state to let all convicted felons vote because of the law’s failure to define offenses of moral turpitude. But the Alabama Supreme Court overturned the decision.

“Many of eligible voters don’t know they’re eligible,” he said. “What we lose sight of with this issue is that under the constitution of Alabama and the law, eligible people are being denied the right to vote. The health of our democracy requires that eligible citizens are afforded the opportunity to participate. We don’t lose where there is participation.”



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