During a week fraught with concern stemming from the aftermath of Saturday’s tragedy in Charlottesville, most people around the country were not paying attention to the United States Senate primary in Alabama on Tuesday.
Tuesday’s special election to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions had very low turnout, in the 10-15 percent range, according to The Birmingham News. But for some voters who have only recently been given back their right to vote after years of disenfranchisement, the act of casting a ballot this Tuesday mattered a great deal.
Willie G., a 37-year resident of Birmingham, Alabama, voted for the first time this Tuesday and called it a beautiful experience and an opportunity to “feel like somebody.” Willie, age 69, works as a roofer and painter, and served a 10-year sentence in the state penitentiary from 1981-1991 on nonviolent drug charges. Since his release, Willie has focused on making up for lost time with his two daughters and providing for his family. Prior to his incarceration, Willie did not take advantage of his right to vote. Since then, Willie wanted to vote but was not able to because of his decades-old felony convictions. With the help of Greater Birmingham Ministries, he applied to vote in 2016 but his application was rejected for a “disqualifying felony.”
Due to changes made in May to the felony disenfranchisement laws in Alabama, Willie’s voting rights were restored and Willie was finally able to vote this Tuesday for the first time. Willie does not have a car. But on Tuesday, eager to vote for the first time, Willie contacted a friend who was able to give him a ride to Mt. Zion Community Church, his local polling place.
When he arrived at Mt. Zion, Willie said there were quite a few people that knew him personally. They told him they were proud to see him come in and vote. “It was the first time I ever voted in my life and it feels really good,” Willie said. “It’s a good feeling to do what everybody else gets a chance to do.”
Prior to this change in the law, Alabama’s constitution disenfranchised individuals for felonies “involving moral turpitude” but never defined the term. Instead, Alabama left it to each registrar to decide whose crimes “involved moral turpitude” and whose did not. Evidently, the registrar reviewing Willie G.’s application decided his convictions were disqualifying. In September 2016, CLC — representing Greater Birmingham Ministries and ten individual plaintiffs — filed suit against this discriminatory system of disenfranchisement.
On May 25, 2017, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed legislation, HB 282, which specifies which felonies constitute “crimes of moral turpitude” that disqualify citizens from voting. While many individuals remain disenfranchised, the law provided clarity to thousands of eligible voters like Willie, whose convictions are not on HB 282’s list, and who should never have been denied their rights in the first place.
Willie was able to vote on Tuesday not only because of the change in the law but also because of the help of Greater Birmingham Ministries (GBM). Since GBM had previously sought to help Willie apply to vote, CLC was able to contact him about the law and the restoration of his right to vote. Without this individual follow up, Willie likely would not have discovered that he has the right to vote. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill has publicly refused to “spend state resources to notifying a small percentage of individuals [that their right to vote has been restored.]”
Absent GBM and CLC’s intervention, the word about changes in Alabama law was unlikely to reach Willie, who does not have a smartphone or internet access. Reaching other voters like Willie is a challenge that CLC has taken on alongside Alabama Legal Services and the ACLU of Alabama, which are conducting clinics across the state to inform voters of their rights. However, the Secretary of State’s refusal to conduct its own outreach or voter education, post signs in voter registration offices of DMVs, or update its registration forms, certainly hampers these efforts.
Despite the changes made in May, the bill does not fully resolve Alabama’s problems. Alabama is one of only a handful of states that still permanently strip citizens with previous felony convictions from the polls. According to the Sentencing Project, more than 250,000 people were disenfranchised in Alabama, which included 15 percent of the state’s black voting age population. While the new law likely provides relief for thousands of voters, it leaves even more still disenfranchised by an antiquated law rooted in Jim Crow. Citizens seeking to restore their right to vote in Alabama can only do so after paying all their fines and fees. In other words, these citizens have to pay a modern day poll tax in order to vote.
Felony disenfranchisement laws silence the voices of 5.85 million citizens who are banned from access to the polls nationwide. As many as 75 percent of these disenfranchised voters are no longer in prison but are not able to vote. Many of those individuals hope to have a day like Willie had on Tuesday.
Read about CLC’s ongoing litigation in Thompson v. Merrill over the state’s discriminatory felony disenfranchisement law.