Group wants Alabama to educate voters about new voting law

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A voting rights group has asked a federal judge to force Alabama to tell people that they could be eligible to vote after previously being disqualified for a felony conviction.

U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins on Wednesday scheduled a July 25 hearing on the Campaign Legal Center’s injunction request. The Campaign Legal Center last week asked Watkins to require the state to implement an education campaign and take other steps, after lawmakers approved legislation clarifying which felonies cause a person to lose voting rights.

The group also asked the state to reinstate eligible voters and disclose all voter registration applicants and voter registrants who were denied the right to vote on the basis of conviction in the past two years.

“HB 282 has the potential to restore access to the franchise for thousands of eligible voters who should never have been denied their rights in the first place,” attorneys wrote.

Alabama is one of a handful of states that permanently strip some convicted felons of their right to vote. The 1901 Alabama Constitution says people convicted of crimes involving “moral turpitude” are no longer able to vote. However, the constitution doesn’t define the term or list any crimes meeting the definition. Politicians for decades squabbled over what was a disqualifying crime.

Alabama lawmakers in May approved legislation clarifying that 46 types of felonies will cause someone to lose voting rights including robbery, assault, felony theft and drug trafficking but not offenses such as drug possession.

It’s not clear how many people are affected by the new law. The new list is similar to a list that had been given as guidance to county registrars by the secretary of state in an election handbook, but it doesn’t include some previously disqualifying crimes, such as third-degree burglary. The list to registrars was also only guidance, and not state law.

The center estimates the new law could restore voting rights to “thousands of eligible voters.” Center officials say they have personally identified dozens who were wrongly told they couldn’t vote.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill supported the legislation. Lawyers for the state wrote in a court filing that Merrill is “implementing it in a deliberate fashion.”

“He is in the best position to determine in the first instance how this law should be rolled out. And, in point of fact, the Secretary of State has already modified the registrars’ handbook for conducting elections to incorporate the new law,” state lawyers wrote.

The Campaign Legal Center is representing plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed last year challenging Alabama’s practice of stripping felons of their voting rights. Two of the 10 plaintiffs will be allowed to vote under the new law, but the rest will not.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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