Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Felons' rights to vote at issue

Wednesday, December 21, 2005
News staff writer
The Birmingham News

Three Alabamians, one convicted of felony driving under the influence and two of drug possession, claim in a federal lawsuit they are among hundreds being denied the right to vote.

The suit, filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, contends that Alabama Secretary of State Nancy Worley violates Alabama's constitution by requiring all felons to apply to the Board of Pardons and Paroles to have voting rights restored.

The suit says the state constitution is clear that people convicted of certain felonies including DUI and drug possession - unlike murder, rape or robbery - do not lose their voting rights and do not need to apply for an eligibility certificate from the board.

The suit was made available to the public Tuesday. Ekeyesto Doss of Dothan and Birmingham residents Richard Gooden and Andrew Jones are plaintiffs.

Worley said Tuesday that the state has a long practice of removing from voting rolls anyone convicted of a felony, whether drug possession or murder.

The Legal Defense Fund said in a statement that legal action began after Jefferson County's registrar refused in late September to register Gooden, 64, because of his 2002 felony DUI conviction. It became a felony with that third Alabama DUI conviction.

Gooden was allowed to register after a separate lawsuit was filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court in September against Worley and Nell Hunter, the county registrar. That case is pending before Circuit Judge Robert Vance.

Jeff Sewell, a Jefferson County attorney, declined comment. Hunter also is named as a defendant in the federal suit.

Jones, a 47-year-old Birmingham man convicted of felony drug possession in the early 1990s, was informed in a June 30, 2005, letter from the Jefferson County registrar that his voter registration form could not be processed because his felony offense barred him from voting, the suit said. Doss, who has a felony marijuana possession conviction, was informed by the Houston County registrar that he must apply to the board of pardons for an eligibility certificate.

The Legal Defense Fund wrote Worley urging her to follow state law, and asked Attorney General Troy King to identify felonies that involve moral turpitude. The suit cites several sources to define moral turpitude; one is having "an inherent quality of baseness, vileness, depravity."

Worley said the attorney general's office issued an opinion last spring saying there is a distinction between felonies and she has requested a clarification from King.

`A definitive list':

"We don't need anyone making judgment calls," Worley said. "We need a definitive list."
Suzanne Webb, an AG spokeswoman, said the office is conducting research because there are more than 250 felonies and each must be thoroughly examined.

Worley said another issue is whether any change would require elections in prisons for felons who would not have lost their voting rights. "As the state's chief election official, I'm personally opposed to people in prison voting," she said.

Worley said her office will follow instructions once she gets a definitive AG opinion or when the court makes a ruling.

Edward Still, a Birmingham lawyer handling the suit locally, contends that what the secretary of state has been doing violates the Voting Rights Act because it involves a change in election procedure without first getting approval from the Justice Department.

"The state has changed its voting procedures because it is saying to people like Jones and Doss that they can't register to vote unless they receive a certification of eligibility from the pardon and parole board," he said.

Still said hundreds of people across the state have applied to the pardon and parole board, but are told they don't have to get restoration.

"In the spirit of the legacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Alabama should be leading the way in expanding, rather than contracting democracy for its citizens," said Ryan Paul Haygood, a Legal Defense Fund lawyer.


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