New law clears up voting confusion for Alabamians with a felony

Updated: May. 24, 2017 at 11:30 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Governor Kay Ivey signed a bill into law Wednesday that clears up confusion for some 250,000 Alabamians who currently can't vote due to a felony conviction.

There's now a list that clearly defines which felonies prohibit someone from the ballot box for life. For others, this bill could restore their voting rights, but just how many remains unclear.

If you've been convicted of a crime, the Southern Poverty Law Center breaks it down like this: your voting rights fall into one of three categories.

The first, you're permanently disenfranchised. This includes people with murder or rape convictions. The third category is for those with misdemeanors who never lost the right to vote, but the middle category, the one the law deals with, is for those who have been convicted of a felony, but there's a grey area surrounding their voting rights.

The constitution says you can lose your right to vote if you're convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude.

"Because there was no codified list or state law that said these are the crime for which you lose your right to vote, there was arbitrary application among the different registrar's office," said Shay Farley, Policy Council, Southern Poverty Law Center.

Meaning up until this point, a felon's right to vote varied county by county.

"For example marijuana possession, they might list that as a crime of moral turpitude, whereas only distribution of that drug or that substance would really be considered a crime of moral turpitude," said John Merrill, Alabama Secretary of State.

Now there's no gray area.

"Once they've made for restitution and they serve their sentence we want their voting rights restored," said Merrill.

"Anything that is not on this list, then they never lost their right to vote," said Farley.

The SPLC says statistics show 15 percent of Alabama's population can't vote due to a felony record.

"We're estimating that it will impact a few thousand people," said Farley.

But Secretary of State John Merrill disagrees.

"That's like when people tell me that there's thousands and thousands of people being disenfranchised by the photo ID component which that's not true and it's not true that there's thousands and thousands of people that are going to be affected by this legislation," said Merrill.

The SPLC points out the majority of Alabamians with a felony record are African American and there are very few white-collar crimes on this list so no fraud or public corruption charges listed. While this is a step forward, Farley says there's still work to be done when addressing voting rights.

Similar bills have fallen flat in years past but this year, the Definition of Moral Turpitude Act, passed both chambers of the legislature with bipartisan support.

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