Challenge to Alabama’s Felony Disenfranchisement Moves Toward Trial

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots.

CLC’s clients’ challenge to Alabama’s law that has stripped up to 280,000 people with convictions of their right to vote, Thompson v. Alabama, will move forward after a ruling from the Middle District of Alabama in late December denying the state’s attempt to dismiss the case. Today, the district court entered an order putting the case on track for a trial in Montgomery on May 6, 2019.

The case, brought on behalf of Greater Birmingham Ministries and individuals with convictions across the state, will proceed on our claims that Alabama’s law is unconstitutional because it denies the right to vote based on race, conditions rights restoration on wealth, retroactively imposes additional punishment, and constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

The district court’s ruling in December is the second major victory for Alabamians in this case. The first came in May 2017 in the Alabama Legislature. In 2016, CLC filed this case on behalf of our clients challenging an arbitrary system of disenfranchisement. Alabama’s Constitution disenfranchised people with felony convictions “involving moral turpitude” but Alabama left “moral turpitude” undefined, leading to arbitrary and widespread disenfranchisement of individuals for many nonviolent low-level crimes. In May 2017, the Alabama Legislature finally acted after decades and came up with a list of 47 disqualifying crimes. This law enfranchised tens of thousands of individuals in Alabama, if not more. Now, people with convictions not on that list can register to vote immediately. Our online toolkit helps individuals determine their eligibility under this new law.

Now, with the court’s order, CLC can proceed toward trial on the rest of our claims against Alabama’s retrograde felony disenfranchisement law. Even with the 2017 change, the law fails basic constitutional requirements. Many of our clients are still unable to vote despite serving their sentences and contributing to their communities.

To hear them explain the harms of this law in their own words, watch CLC’s video Uncounted.

First, Alabama’s felony disenfranchisement law is rooted in a Jim Crow-era state constitutional convention where it was designed for the express purpose of disenfranchising black people. That history, which the Court called “undisputed 'well established and documented,'” is at the crux of the reason why the law continues to violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Fifteenth Amendment. As the Court noted, “states cannot promulgate felon disenfranchisement laws ‘with the intent to deprive one racial group of its right to participate in the political process.’” The judge also noted that 15 percent of the black voting age population in Alabama is disenfranchised and that black voting age people are three times as likely as white voting age people to have lost the right to vote, facts that “show a connection between the past and present.”

Second, the state’s requirement that people with disqualifying convictions pay off all legal fines and fees before they have their voting rights restored violates the Equal Protection Clause. Indeed, it is nothing more than a modern day poll tax. As it stands, Alabama conditions the restoration of a fundamental right on the size of a citizens’ wallet. This requirement is inconsistent with our values and our Constitution.

Finally, Alabama’s disenfranchisement law imposes additional penalties on citizens in violation of the Ex Post Facto clause’s prohibition on retroactive changes to criminal penalties. At the time of our clients’ convictions, there was no definition of “moral turpitude” and therefore no definition of what crimes were disqualifying. Deciding in 2017 to punish our clients with disenfranchisement violates our basic norms of fairness and due process. Finally, a law that penalizes a long list of wildly disparate crimes, ranging from low-level nonviolent theft crimes to murder, with permanent exclusion from our political community violates the Eight Amendment. Both of these claims have survived the motion to dismiss, possibly for the first time in a case challenging felony disenfranchisement in any state, because “[the Alabama law] requires its own analysis.”

Blair is the Director, Restore Your Vote.