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California Changes Course and Restores Voting Rights

The California secretary of state abandoned his predecessor’s challenge to a voting rights decision, providing an important boost for the rights restoration movement.

  • Vishal Agraharkar
August 4, 2015

The move­ment to restore voting rights to people with crim­inal convic­tions received an import­ant boost today when Cali­for­nia Secret­ary of State Alex Padilla with­drew his prede­cessor’s misguided chal­lenge to a lower court ruling that restored voting rights to tens of thou­sands of Cali­for­ni­ans living with past crim­inal convic­tions.

The Cali­for­nia Consti­tu­tion prohib­its people from voting if they are “imprisoned or on parole” for a felony convic­tion. However, those on proba­tion can vote.  This confus­ing legal arrange­ment — which is shared by a hand­ful of other states, and often leads to de facto disen­fran­chise­ment of even eligible voters — was made even worse by the policy at issue in this case.

Scott v. Bowen concerned the voting rights of people who have been released from prison and placed under post-release crim­inal justice super­vi­sion programs that were created in 2011 in response to over­crowding in Cali­for­ni­a’s pris­ons. These programs are very similar to proba­tion — people under them actu­ally report to the same county office as proba­tion­ers. But Cali­for­ni­a’s previ­ous secret­ary of state, Debra Bowen, issued a direct­ive disen­fran­chising people in the new super­vi­sion programs under the theory they should be treated like parolees. A group of plaintiffs chal­lenged Bowen’s direct­ive in court, and a judge ruled last spring that her order viol­ated the Cali­for­nia consti­tu­tion.

Bowen appealed the ruling, continu­ing to argue for a broad inter­pret­a­tion of “parole” that would restrict the voting rights of thou­sands. The Bren­nan Center, along with Morrison & Foer­ster LLP, filed an amicus brief in support of the rule’s chal­lengers, noting that the secret­ary’s direct­ive would under­mine the legis­lature’s goal to rehab­il­it­ate people placed under county super­vi­sion. It also argued that the policy would create a confus­ing rule that would exacer­bate the de facto disen­fran­chise­ment of eligible voters, and have a dispro­por­tion­ate effect on racial minor­it­ies. Now Padilla, Bowen’s successor, has decided to with­draw the appeal and let the lower court ruling stand.

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the sign­ing of the Voting Rights Act, Padilla’s decision to uphold the right to vote for tens of thou­sands of Cali­for­ni­ans is cause for celeb­ra­tion. It is also another step forward in an advan­cing move­ment to reform felony disen­fran­chise­ment policies.  Lead­ers across the ideo­lo­gical spec­trum are real­iz­ing that giving people with past crim­inal convic­tions the right to vote promotes success­ful rein­teg­ra­tion and gives return­ing citizens a stake in the community.  Pres­id­ent Obama has even entered the discus­sion, recently call­ing for the restor­a­tion of voting rights upon release from incar­cer­a­tion. Other states should follow Cali­for­ni­a’s lead and re-eval­u­ate whether their policies go as far as they should in promot­ing rein­teg­ra­tion and provid­ing a second chance for all citizens.