In 2017, the state of Alabama passed a law that restored voting rights for some Alabamians and established a process for others to regain their voting rights. Because the state has not dedicated time or resources to promote the new law, now five years later, few of the impacted people have heard about their voting rights restoration.
More than a century ago, when former plantation owners and enslavers met in Montgomery to pass a new state constitution that would restore and cement their power, they explicitly stated their intent to preserve white supremacy. One tactic to maintain power was to disenfranchise Black people. Today, most people are aware of certain Jim Crow laws like literacy tests and poll taxes, but some Black and white voters today still feel the lingering effects of one targeted law: disenfranchisement for “crimes of moral turpitude.”
What are “crimes of moral turpitude?” The state constitution did not provide a definition or an enumeration of such crimes, leaving it largely to the discretion of local voting boards. A theft in Wilcox County might cost you your voting rights, while the same crime in Winston County may not have that effect.
The architects of the 1901 constitution created a system that was messy and opaque. And it stayed that way for well over a century. In 2017, the state finally listed the crimes that could cost citizens their voting rights and retroactively restored the voting rights for an estimated 300,000 people who had previously been disenfranchised by the law. Each of those people are eligible to vote as soon as they register.
Another group of an unknown size—those convicted of the now listed crimes of moral turpitude and have completed their sentence and paid all requisite fees—will be eligible to vote as soon as they file a certificate of eligibility.
The process is still a little messy and confusing but it’s much cleaner than it was five years ago. However, the state has done little to raise public awareness about the new law, despite its impact on approximately 6 percent of the population. It’s consistent with a pattern of behavior of politicians throughout the South.
Return My Vote is a new nonpartisan clinic working to fill that void, hosting free rights restoration clinics and helping Alabamians navigate the process. Dori Miles and Maddie Minkoff, who both work with Return My Vote to host clinics and raise awareness, joined Reckon this week to discuss the history and impact of the law and provide resources for people looking to get their rights restored.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Reckon: In 2017, Alabama passed a law regarding voter restoration for people who had previously been convicted of felonies—crimes of moral turpitude, I think is what the law referred to. What has happened in the five years since then? How many people have been able to get their voting rights restored? And how many people are still outstanding in terms of voter rights restoration?
Dori Miles: Let me give you a little bit of background, if I can.
In 1901, when the Alabama Constitution Convention was convened. The person who was appointed as the head of the constitutional convention expressly stated that the reason for the convention and writing a new constitution in Alabama was to preserve white supremacy. A lot of the wealthy former plantation owners felt that the best way to do that was to disenfranchise Black people from voting. So they included in that constitution the words that if you were convicted of a crime of moral turpitude, you could not vote. And then they proceeded to not define “moral turpitude.” So pretty much every white person in power got to decide for him or herself what moral turpitude meant. And over many, many years and decades in Alabama, “moral turpitude” seemed to mean “crimes that Black people committed.” So that was pretty much the state of affairs, literally until 1986.
Reckon: And a lot of these things are things that we wouldn’t even generally consider serious crimes, like vagrancy and things like that.
Miles: Correct. There are documented, completely outrageous examples of things like it being a crime of moral turpitude if you did not have your former plantation owner’s permission to be in a particular location at a certain time of the day. Or being out after the sun set. So yes, there is a documented history in Alabama of that kind of thing.
But also, for many decades, literally it would vary county by county. So our election laws throughout the country are actually controlled by local county election officials under the umbrella, of course, of various state or federal laws and regulations. But, basically a person goes into the county where they live and register. They register to vote. So someone in Alabama could go into Calhoun County, for example, having been convicted of the crime of receiving stolen property. And in Calhoun County, the registrar might look at that person and say, “That’s a crime of moral turpitude, so you’re not eligible to register to vote.”
A person in Jefferson County could go into the registrar’s office with the exact same conviction, but the registrar there might look at the person and say, “That’s not a crime of moral turpitude, receiving stolen property. So here you go, here’s your voter registration application.” And that person could vote.
Miles: So literally, here in Alabama, even where it is pretty well accepted that it’s not a friendly jurisdiction to expanding the franchise, people across the spectrum realized that this system was completely unworkable. Confusing. Resulted, obviously, in completely disparate outcomes. In fact, some people believe, too, I don’t know how you test this exactly, but in 2016, the lawsuit was filed, Thompson v. Merrill, that challenged all these practices, this county-by-county determination of who was actually eligible to register to vote. And it appears to many that across the political spectrum in Alabama, people felt that lawsuit was extremely viable, and might result in the taking down of the entire Alabama election and voting system. And so, many people believe that was a good part of the pressure that developed to cause the legislature to actually take steps, to make changes that would end the system that was in place.
In fact, even though the changes in the law ... It’s called the Definition of Moral Turpitude Act. Even though the law did make a number of changes, it certainly didn’t finish the job by any stretch. There’s still a number of problems with the eligibility laws and the election laws. And now, unfortunately, there’s pressure to impose more problematic issues. But it’s fair to say, I think, that the change in the law in 2017 was a small step forward. It did expand voting access. And what it did was, very simply, it literally created a definitive list of crimes in Alabama that constitute moral turpitude.
Reckon: How many crimes are on that list?
Dori Miles: So it does vary, but it’s about 46.
Reckon: And what types of crimes are we talking about here?
Miles: So it’s interesting because there is this discreet definitive list of 46 felony convictions, and they span the gamut. So people will often say to me, “Oh, I can’t register. I have a violent felony.” Well, no, there are some violent felonies that allow you to get your voting rights back. And there are some non-violent felonies that don’t. So it’s not about that.
Miles: So for example, things that are on the list that constitute crimes of moral turpitude are things like manslaughter, assault in the first degree, assault in the second degree, not assault in the third degree or fourth degree, forgery, for some reason, in the first degree, the second degree, not possession of a forged instrument. Things like theft of property in the first degree and the second degree are on the list, not theft of property in the third degree, not receiving stolen property, not negotiating worthless instruments.
And I should say, I never practiced criminal law, for example, and I’m not an expert on the Alabama criminal code. What I can tell you is there is this definitive list, and next to each crime that does constitute a crime of moral turpitude, like theft property in the first degree, there is a statute number. And if you’ve been convicted of that statute number, you’ve lost your voting rights. If you have not been convicted of that statute number, even if it’s a variation that would suggest that, wait, it seems to be the same conviction, you don’t lose your voting rights.
Reckon: And the people who have lost their voting rights are now able to apply to have them restored?
Reckon: Was that something new in 2017?
Miles: There had been a process, also, for restoration that I think was enacted in Alabama in 2003, but it was impossible to actually apply because there was no definition of what was a disqualifying felony, and on what basis you would get it back. This did clarify the basis on which you could get your voting rights back. There are essentially several conditions.
If you’ve been convicted of a crime of moral turpitude, like theft of property in the first degree, you have to have completed your sentence, including probation, parole, or any kind of community supervision on that crime of moral turpitude. And you have to have paid off your fines, fees, or victim restitution, and you can’t have any felonies currently pending. If you meet those three conditions and you submit your application, the state of Alabama must return your voting rights.
Reckon: So there’s no option for anybody in the process to overturn it, as long as you meet all three of those criteria.
Miles: Correct. There is no discretion whatsoever. It’s a mandatory statute.
Reckon: Do we know how many people have managed to go through this process since 2017? Do we keep record of that?
Miles: Well, actually, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, I’ll say purports to keep a record of that, and the numbers are dismal. I think the first report that they issued after the change in the law, there was something like maybe 1600 applications, of which 340 or so were actually granted.
Again, somebody could apply and maybe they still owe some money, some fines and fees, and so that might be a proper reason under the law to deny their application. We have a host of examples, though, of where people have been improperly denied their voting rights based on flaws in the data system. Their names get confused with other people, their convictions are stated improperly.
So there’s a whole host of those types of things that are happening. But yes, the numbers are dismal.
When the law changed in 2017, it was estimated that 300,000 Alabamians became eligible to register to vote. The felony convictions they had were no longer considered crimes of moral turpitude. So they had never lost their voting rights. The law was retroactive when it was passed. So if you had committed receiving stolen property, let’s say, which is not a disqualifying felony, and you had been convicted of that in 1990, you got your voting rights back. You became eligible to register the vote upon the implementation of the law.
Reckon: So, wait. Let me just make sure I understand that correctly. That 300,000 people that you’re referring to, those are people who are now eligible to vote because they had not committed crimes of moral turpitude.
Reckon: But the process that we’re talking about in terms of meeting all three of those criteria are for people who were convicted of crimes of moral turpitude and have to go through that process. If your crime is not on that list, you don’t have to go through any process. You can register to vote right now.
Miles: We need you to come work with us. You got that really fast.
Maddie Minkoff: Also, we have a document that has all of the crimes of moral turpitude listed out, and all of their statutes and everything, because there’s also levels to these crimes of moral turpitude. The first, I would say, 30, 35 or so, are what’s called serve eligible. And those are the ones that Dori is mainly talking about. Those are the ones that you just have to fill those three conditions, and then the state has to give you your voting rights back. And then there’s another subset where you have to get pardoned for these crimes in order to get your voting rights back. And then there’s the big crimes, like treason, for instance, that are permanently disqualifying.
Reckon: Got it. Okay. So, it’s slightly simplified the system, but it’s still very, very complicated.
Miles: It has, yeah, a bunch of nuances, I guess.
What I wanted to share real quickly, too, if I can, is that, so when the law changed ... And this is in the Huffington Post, and I believe a couple of other publications. [Alabama Secretary of State] John Merrill expressly stated that he wasn’t going to spend one dime, I believe is the quote, of taxpayer money educating “criminals” on their voting rights. So when we talk about why most people still don’t know about the change in the law, and that in fact, even if they have a felony conviction, there’s a decent likelihood that they are eligible right now to register to vote—or after going through what should be a simple process of filling out an application, they can get their voting rights back—nobody knows this.
Reckon: Well, especially because I think when that law passed, some people, maybe a large portion of that 300,000 who already have their voting rights back, probably thought that they would have to go through some sort of application process.
Miles: And I think that people just didn’t know that there was this new law.
Reckon: So, at the very least, what your organization wants is that 300,000 people who are already eligible to vote, to register to vote. That’s, what? slightly less than 10% of the state population, probably more than that in terms of voting age population? And then the second prong of your mission is to walk people through the process of applying to get their voting rights back if they are on that list of crimes of moral turpitude.
So tell me about if somebody is on that list, has committed a crime on list, or thinks that they’ve committed a crime on that list. What can they do? How can they get in touch with you? And what’s that process look like?
Minkoff: The biggest way is our website. That’s return-my-vote.com. On that website, you can schedule a free consultation with our team, and that can be via email, text message, phone call, video call, however you see fit. We’ll get your name and date of birth, and we’ll actually search your records in Alacourt, and we will check each individual conviction under your name against that list of crimes of moral turpitude. Best case scenario is we do that and we see that none of your crimes are crimes of moral turpitude, and we’re able to help you register to vote then and there.
Or we’ll find that you do have a crime moral turpitude, but you’ve already completed all the conditions. You’ve paid all your fines, you’ve completed your sentence. You have no more felonies pending. And so we’ll help you submit what’s called a certificate of eligibility to register to vote to the state. And that has a turnaround of 44 days. So we’ll check in with you in about 50 days and make sure the state has kept up with what they’re supposed to do and given you your eligibility to vote back, and then we’ll help you register to vote.
Or we might find that you do have a disqualifying conviction, and on that conviction, you still owe some amount of money. In that case, importantly, we first help you understand what you owe and where you owe it, because we also find a lot of people don’t know that they owe fines still. A lot of people come to us like, “Yeah, I’m all paid off. I’ve completed all my sentences.” And then we get into the system and the data that Alacourt has doesn’t reflect that.
But we can also, if they want, help them file fine remittance paperwork with the state, or in a lot of cases ... Just recently, I helped this one gentleman, and we found that he had a $32 charge that needed to be paid off before he could register to vote. That was the only obstacle. In that case, I was just like, “Hey, man, there’s this tiny little charge here”. And he was like, “Oh my God, I’m going to go get that paid off like this week, and then I will get back in touch with you.”
So that’s what that process looks like. And we keep up with anyone that comes to us through the website, or if we meet them in person at different events we go to. We also are trying to work with different organizations around the state to get them to... For instance, we’re trying to work with like Alabama Appleseed and the Jimmie Hale Mission. So if they have people they can send us that can benefit, we’ll work with them and the organization to keep up with these people throughout every step of the process of getting their votes restored, and then actually getting them to the polls, and getting them registered to vote and actually voting.
Reckon: You mentioned earlier on that it was explicit when these laws were written in 1901 that the goal was to target black voters and to enforce white supremacy. A lot of comments that we get sometimes when we talk about stories like this today is, “Okay, maybe that’s what the intent was a hundred years ago, but these crimes that are on this list, anybody can commit these crimes.” So what’s the racial breakdown here, and how do we know whether or not it still is targeting black voters?
Miles: Well, I think one way to understand that is just through the numbers. And so for example, the Black population in Alabama is about 25% of the total population, yet our prisons are comprised of upwards of 50 and 55% of people who are African American or non-white. And so, those are people, obviously, who are going to be more impacted by this type of system. Where is the equity, if you will, in that?
And so, I don’t have the numbers precisely of how many more Black people are disenfranchised percentage wise than whites, but I know it is also a disparate impact and a more severe impact on people who are Black. And so it does appear from the numbers that this line of discrimination has actually managed to continue to seep into our current culture.
The other thing that I think is notable is that approximately 75% of the people in Alabama with felony convictions are not in prison. They are our neighbors, our family members. There is terrific research that shows that people who vote and are more engaged civically with their communities are just much more involved and much more in an aspirational mode of really trying to move things forward, as opposed to having antisocial behaviors, or views, or whatever. And so, the benefits to all of us in having people engaged and through voting is really tremendous. For people not to see that or appreciate that, and just continue to think that they can live isolated is ... That’s a myth.
Minkoff: I would also add, if I may, the list that I can send you of disqualifying convictions is ... There’s just a very apparent lack of what’s considered white collar crime on that list. For instance, Dori mentioned theft property in the first and second is on there, but there’s nothing about embezzlement or anything like that. And yeah, so there’s definitely some social going on just within that list, and that’s pretty apparent.
Miles: An example of that is, honestly, Mike Hubbard. The crimes that he was convicted of, which include betrayal of the public trust, and never took his voting rights away. So he was totally eligible. Believe it or not, a lot of people don’t know that you can vote in Alabama even if you’re incarcerated.
Reckon: As long as you’re not on that list.
Miles: Correct. Yeah.
Reckon: What else should our audience know about this process, and who should they contact if they have questions?
Minkoff: Definitely go to our website. You could also reach out to Greater Birmingham Ministries if you can’t find our website for any reason. Then, I’ve been the communications person so far for the project, so anyone is welcome to reach out to me. You have my email. And then Dori is far and beyond the expert and amazing person in this whole process. So if you need help immediately, you can reach out to me, and I will probably point you directly to Dori because she is who you need to be talking to.
Miles: I appreciate that. There really are a number of people throughout the state, too, who are pretty well versed in all of this stuff. I’m still getting up to speed, but my email is GBMvotes@gbm.org.
And anybody who you may know, or any organization that you may know that may work with people who have felony convictions, and are under the mistaken belief that they can’t vote, just tell them to schedule a meeting return-my-vote.com.