You Shouldn't Need a Lawyer to Tell You If You Can Vote

Issues
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Alabama Voting Rights Project

For just over a year now, I’ve been working in Alabama to help individuals with felony convictions restore their voting rights. In 2017, Alabama changed its felony disenfranchisement law – a Jim Crow holdover law that we are currently challenging in Federal Court – to re-enfranchisement tens of thousands of Alabamians.

Despite the change, the state refuses to invest any resources in letting the thousands of re-enfranchised people know that they can now vote again. In fact, nearly a year and a half after the law was passed, a survey found that nearly 72 percent of people with felony convictions in Alabama do not even know that the law has changed, much less if it applies to them.

To spread the word and help eligible voters across the state understand their voting rights, CLC joined forces with the Southern Poverty Law Center to create the Alabama Voting Rights Project (AVRP).

AVRP focuses on using traditional organizing tactics like door-to-door canvassing and tabling at community events to find people with convictions and provide them with rights restoration services.  So far, we have assisted more than 1,512 Alabamians with past convictions. In addition to assisting individuals, we also train community leaders on the law so that they can help others in their community. We have trained more than 1,177 community on the rights restoration process.

One of the people we helped was Christopher Pugh, a resident of Mobile who had not voted since 1999 because of a conviction. Just two years prior he had attempted to register to vote, but was denied.

Under the new law Mr. Pugh was eligible to vote, but did not know about the change. After we helped him understand his voting rights and that he was in fact eligible to vote, Mr. Pugh registered in person with the same registrar who had denied him two years ago. He said he will be a lifelong voter.

The law in Alabama is complicated and without access to legal materials, assistance, or education, many people who are eligible to vote simply wouldn't know it. No one should have to pay for a lawyer to understand if they are able to vote.

While working on the ground I was able to provide individual services to help people understand their rights and take the necessary steps to exercise their right to vote when eligible. That's how the law should be in all areas but it is particularly important when it can be a barrier to democratic participation.

Blair is a Skadden Foundation Fellow at CLC focusing on overbroad felony disenfranchisement laws.