Alabama governor signs law giving thousands of felons their right to vote back

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tags: racism, Alabama, Voting



When the Alabama constitution was adopted in 1901, the disenfranchisement of those “convicted of a felony of moral turpitude” had less-than-veiled racial implications.

Though no official definition was given, crimes of “moral turpitude” were commonly understood as crimes more frequently committed by black citizens. According to the president of the all-white constitutional convention, the purpose of the disenfranchisement provision was to “establish white supremacy in this state.”

And that’s exactly what the law did. “It allowed registrars to deny the right to vote to black people and grant the right to vote to white people,” said Danielle Lang, the deputy director of voting rights for the Campaign Legal Center, which is currently challenging Alabama’s disenfranchisement law in court. For decades, unelected county registrars were given broad discretion to decide who they would block from the polls.

That arbitrary system was used until 1985, when the U.S. Supreme Court attempted to roll back the racist wording. In a unanimous ruling, the court held that the “moral turpitude” language is intentionally discriminatory and violates the Equal Protection Clause. But it was short-lived victory — voter suppression efforts quickly surged back in Alabama.

Eleven years after the ruling, Alabama lawmakers inserted the same “moral turpitude” provision into a state disenfranchisement law. The law was different enough from the constitution to pass muster, but provided no new justification for the vague language.

“Until maybe this week, it has continued to function in a way that allows for arbitrariness and therefore allows for discrimination,” Lang said.





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