LDF Challenges Alabama’s Denial of Voting Rights to People with Felony Convictions Not Involving “Moral Turpitude” In State and Federal Court

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Though Alabama’s Constitution permits people with felony convictions not involving moral turpitude to register to vote, the Alabama Secretary of State has instructed voter registrars throughout the state to refuse to register such persons that have not applied to the Board of Pardons and Paroles for a Certificate of Eligibility. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. filed two lawsuits in federal and state court, challenging the state's action.

These two legal challenges are critical to efforts to protect the voting rights of the most vulnerable among us, particularly when those voting rights should not have been lost in the first place.

Yesterday, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and Alabama attorney Edward Still expanded Gooden v. Worley, CV. 05-5778, a state court felon disfranchisement lawsuit originally filed in September on behalf of Mr. Richard Gooden, to include all Alabamians with felony convictions not involving moral turpitude that are being illegally barred from voting. LDF and Mr. Still, on the same day, also filed Gooden v. Worley, CV-05-AR-2562-S (Gooden II), an enforcement action in federal court under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Though Alabama’s Constitution permits people with felony convictions not involving moral turpitude to register to vote, the Alabama Secretary of State has instructed voter registrars throughout the state to refuse to register such persons until they receive a Certificate of Eligibility from the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

The Alabama Constitution, however, makes clear that people convicted of crimes not involving moral turpitude, like driving under the influence, possession of drugs, and violation of liquor laws, do not lose their voting rights and need not apply for restoration. In fact, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles recently issued a press release to this effect.

“In the spirit of the legacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), Alabama should be leading the way in expanding, rather than contracting, democracy for its citizens,” said LDF assistant counsel Ryan Paul Haygood.

In late September, LDF learned that the Jefferson County Registrar, under the direction of the Alabama Secretary of State, refused to register Mr. Gooden, a 64-year-old African-American citizen and a lifetime resident of Birmingham because of his felony DUI conviction, even though his offense did not involve moral turpitude.

It was not until the passage of the VRA that Mr. Gooden, like thousands of other African Americans, was permitted to register to vote because until that time Alabama relentlessly and systematically pursued efforts to deny voting and office holding to Blacks. Mr. Gooden was registered to vote from the mid-1960s until 2000, when he was convicted of felony DUI, and informed by the State of Alabama that his voting rights were revoked.

LDF wrote a letter urging the Secretary of State to follow Alabama law and an Alabama Attorney General Opinion that identified felonies that did not involve moral turpitude, including Mr. Gooden’s. The letter also asked the Secretary of State to be sensitive to the quickly approaching registration deadline for the November 2005 municipal elections in Jefferson County.    

The Alabama Secretary of State did not respond meaningfully, and, on a very tight time frame imposed by an impending election, LDF filed a complaint in September against the Alabama Secretary of State and the Jefferson County Registrar.

The Jefferson County Registrar agreed, shortly after the complaint was filed, to register Mr. Gooden. Though this was a significant victory for Mr. Gooden, LDF decided to pursue claims for statewide relief for similarly situated individuals in Alabama and to challenge the legality of the Secretary of State’s action.

In a separate complaint filed in federal court under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, LDF argues in Gooden II that the Secretary of State’s instruction to voter registrars not to register any people with felony convictions is inconsistent with the voting section of Alabama’s Constitution. That section, which was precleared in 1996 by the United States Attorney General, permits people with felony convictions not involving moral turpitude to register to vote. Therefore, the federal action argues, the Secretary of State’s action must itself be precleared pursuant to Section 5.

Reverend Kenneth Glasgow, State Field Director of the Alabama Alliance to Restore the Vote, a community-based voter advocacy organization based in Montgomery, said, “These two legal challenges are critical to efforts to protect the voting rights of the most vulnerable among us, particularly when those voting rights should not have been lost in the first place.”

Founded in 1940 under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) is the nation’s oldest civil rights law firm. It won the historic U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, which ended officially sanctioned public school segregation and overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine of legally sanctioned discrimination. Although initially affiliated with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, LDF has been an entirely separate organization since 1957. For copies of the briefs, go to: http://www.naacpldf.org.

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