Alabama group works to reach formerly disenfranchised voters

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A voter advocacy project said Wednesday that people are registering to vote under a 2017 change in Alabama’s felon voting law, but said more must be done to reach everyone who is newly eligible.

“While this is a great success, we still have a long way before we reach tens to a hundred thousand Alabamians who received their rights to vote back,” Jason Barnes of the Alabama Voting Rights Project said during a press conference at the Alabama Capitol.

The project is a collaboration of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Campaign Legal Center.

The 1901 Alabama Constitution says people convicted of crimes involving “moral turpitude” are no longer able to vote, but did not define what those crimes are. Alabama in 2017 clarified which felonies will cause someone to lose voting rights. The list includes robbery, assault, felony theft and drug trafficking but not offenses such as drug possession.

Voting rights advocates called it a step forward in softening the policy of blocking ballot box access for people with criminal records.

It is unclear how many people were impacted by the change. A similar list of disqualifying felonies had been sent to registrars before 2017, but it was only guidance.

Barnes estimated tens of thousands of people, if not over 100,000, may now be eligible to vote.

He said the project has registered 2,000 people. Some of those are people who became eligible under the 2017 change.

Advocates have urged further changes in state law.

Timothy Lanier helps people register to vote and said he turned his life around after being sent to prison, but he himself is barred from voting because of a burglary conviction.

“Certain white collar crimes can get their voting rights back … but stealing is stealing,” Lanier said.

Secretary of State John Merrill said his office backed the 2017 change in the felon voting law to stop any differences in interpretation from county to county on what constituted a crime of moral turpitude.

“We wanted everybody to be treating everyone the same way every time,” Merrill said.

Lawmakers approved the change as the state faced a 2016 federal lawsuit challenging the vagueness of the moral turpitude crime definition.

Merrill said there is no firm estimate on how many people might be impacted by the 2017 law change.

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