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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.