Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed a law this week to clarify language in the state constitution that many say worked to systematically prevent African-Americans from voting.
During a 1901 constitutional convention openly called to establish white supremacy in the state, the Alabama constitution was amended to disenfranchise anyone who had committed a misdemeanor of “moral turpitude.” The Supreme Court found the language unconstitutional in 1985. But lawmakers altered the language slightly ― making it apply only to felonies ― and reinserted it into the constitution in the 1990s.
And because there wasn’t a set definition of which felonies constituted a crime of moral turpitude, local election officials had broad authority to deny people the right to vote.
People who have been convicted of such crimes could vote if they paid fines and fees ― something that effectively constitutes a poll tax. Some 250,000 people were disenfranchised because of the law, including about 15 percent of the state’s African-American voting population and less than 5 percent of its white population.
The law Ivey signed this week defines fewer than 50 crimes ― offenses including murder, kidnapping and rape ― that constitute a felony of “moral turpitude.”
“Up until the passage of this bill, there was absolutely no definition of who had the right to vote and who didn’t,” said Danielle Lang, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center, which brought a lawsuit against Alabama last year over the moral turpitude law.
“The result of that, I think, is that by and large almost everyone was deterred from applying to vote because you were asked to sign under penalty of perjury that you had not been convicted of a disqualifying felony,” she said. “Well, there was no way to know if your felony was disqualifying or not.”
“Up until the passage of this bill, there was absolutely no definition of who had the right to vote and who didn’t.”
It is unclear how many people will be affected by the change, but the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates it could be thousands. Yet some say the new law doesn’t go far enough to address racial disparities in the law because it doesn’t include white-collar crimes such as fraud and public corruption.
Lang said she’s still waiting to see data addressing the racial impact of the new moral turpitude definitions, but that she thinks some of them are puzzling.
“The absence of white-collar crimes in general are kind of glaring. Why theft crimes would be included, but other kind of white-collar crimes that are the equivalent of theft, like fraud type of crimes, is confusing to me,” she said. “It leads one to wonder whether it has to do with who falls into those different categories.”
She added that much of the success of the new law will depend on how much communication there is to voters ― for example, whether the state informs people who were kicked off the voting rolls that they are now eligible to vote.
Lang noted people who do commit crimes of moral turpitude under the new law would still be subject to paying fees or fines, something she said she’d continue to try to get removed.
“I can’t really imagine how it’s anything other than a poll tax,” she said. “If you have two individuals who are similarly situated that have exactly the same crimes, the only distinction between whether or not they can vote, is whether they can afford to pay the fines and fees the state has assessed against them.”
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill (R) used an analogy about ice cream as he dismissed concerns that the new law still could deprive many people of the right to vote.
“If we had a stand in Anytown, U.S.A., and in that stand on Main Street we’re giving out ice cream,” he told ThinkProgress. “Anybody can come. They can only get one cone and it’s vanilla. There’s going to be some people who are gonna cry because they can’t get but one scoop, and there’s gonna be some people who are gonna cry because we don’t have chocolate.”
“I don’t worry about the people who want two scoops,” he said, “and I don’t worry about the people who want a different flavor.”