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Former Prisoners Still Fight Voting Rights Battle

Published: March 6, 2005

The Birmingham News
March 6, 2005

Former prisoners still fight voting rights battle
By Jessie Allen

Forty years ago Monday, Alabama civil rights marchers put their lives on the line for voting rights and changed history. This year, Alabama lawmakers can live up to that brave legacy by passing legislation that will put Alabama back in the forefront of the movement toward equal voting rights.

On March 7, 1965, some 600 voting rights marchers leaving Selma for Montgomery were brutally attacked by Alabama lawmen on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The marchers were turned back, but their cause advanced when the rest of the country watched the televised spectacle of state officials attempting to crush a peaceful democratic movement with state-sanctioned violence.

The voting rights movement gained many supporters that day. That support helped pass the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law that has since been used to remove many of the old barriers to full political participation for African-Americans.

The Voting Rights Act helped do away with voting qualifications adopted by some states, including Alabama, to disenfranchise African-Americans without openly barring them from the polls. Character tests, poll taxes and literacy tests have been swept away. But one such device remains: Alabamas provision disenfranchising indefinitely anyone convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude, unless the person convicted applier for, and is granted, a certificate restoring voting rights from the state Board of pardons and paroles.

That application process is so backlogged that disenfranchisement remains effectively permanent for many Alabama citizens today and a disproportionate number of those citizens are African-Americans. Alabamas criminal disenfranchisement law doesnt affect only African-Americans. In fact, slightly more non-African-Americans have lost their voting rights than African-Americans: about 132,000 and 130,000, respectively.

But because African-Americans make up a smaller portion of the states potential voting population, those numbers trench more deeply into the voting rights and political power of African-American Communities. Sixteen percent of the states African-American voting-age population is barred from the polls, compared with only 5 percent of others. The result is worst for black men: More than one in four cannot vote.

This is, in fact, the result desired by the framers of the voting ban.

The law is a throwback to the pre-civil rights era, having been adopted at the Alabama Constitutional Convention of 1901. Whether its continuing racial impact today is the result of intentional racial prejudice, the laws effect is harshly unequal and anti-democratic. Its not right that 40 years after that Bloody Sunday on the bridge, a law that began as part of a post-reconstruction scheme to disenfranchise black men should still be consigning one in four to permanent political exile. This term, Alabama legislators have a chance to do something about it.

A proposed new law would replace the burdensome application process with automatic restoration of voting rights. That would move Alabama into the vanguard and out of the small group of regressive states that deny voting rights indefinitely after criminal conviction.

Last century, Alabama was the birthplace of a great struggle for equality and democracy. This year, Alabama legislators can help realize the promise of that movement by adopting automatic restoration of voting rights once people convicted of crimes have served their time in prison.

If they choose, todays state lawmakers can remove a last vestige of the unjust system those marchers set out to dismantle four decades ago.

Jessie Allen is an associate counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.