Are States Obligated to Educate Formerly Incarcerated People About Their New Voting Rights

ABA Journal

The last few years have been good for former prisoners hoping to regain the ability to vote. In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued pardons in May to nearly 25,000 parolees in order to restore their voting rights. In Virginia, in an ongoing effort to get more people to the polling booth, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and his predecessor, Terry McAuliffe, have used executive powers to reinstate the rights of approximately 200,000 people with felony records.

“Implementation is everything when it comes to voting rights,” said Danielle Lang, senior legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a national advocacy group.

Voting rights activists in Alabama tried last year to force the secretary of state’s office to educate the public about the new law but lost the case in federal court. Instead, they have taken to grassroots canvassing to get the word out to former prisoners. Earlier this summer, the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog, and the Southern Poverty Law Center launched the Alabama Voting Rights Project, with organizers in Mobile, Montgomery and Birmingham knocking on doors, running events at churches and libraries, and passing out information in jails. (Even incarcerated people can now register to vote if they didn’t commit one of the 47 felonies.)

“It shouldn’t be the job of nonprofits to implement a state law,” said Blair Bowie, an organizing fellow for the project.

Crucially, the new list of crimes does not include some of Alabama’s most often-committed felonies, such as drug possession and third-degree burglary. The Campaign Legal Center estimates that more than half of the estimated 286,000 ex-prisoners who had previously been ineligible to vote could now go back on the rolls.

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