Judge: No need for Alabama to tell ex-felons they can now vote

Alabama re-enfranchised some ex-felons earlier this year—but it doesn’t want to make it too easy for them to vote.

And a federal judge just said it doesn’t have to.

U.S. Judge W. Keith Watkins on Friday rejected a lawsuit filed by the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) that had sought to require Alabama to immediately educate people affected by the change—not even by sending them something in the mail or updating the state’s website. Watkins, an appointee of President George W. Bush, wrote that by instructing election officials to comply with the change, the state had done enough.

But lawyers for the plaintiffs have said that without an outreach effort, many of the thousands of Alabamians re-enfranchised by the law won’t know about it, and as a result will be unable to vote in an upcoming special election. The plaintiffs’ lawyers blame the state — and over a century of unfair disenfranchisement — for the confusion.

Alabama’s constitution, a relic of Jim Crow, bars anyone convicted of a “felony of moral turpitude” from voting. Until the law passed this year, that had been interpreted to mean almost any felony, and it had given local registrars wide discretion to decide which crimes qualified. The new law, which came only after voting rights advocates filed a lawsuit calling Alabama’s system racially biased, defines moral turpitude to refer to fewer than 50 specific felonies.

Tuesday is the cutoff to register for an August 15 statewide special election for the U.S. Senate seat previously held by Jeff Sessions, now the U.S. Attorney General.

“The underlying problem of confusion wrought by the state needs to be resolved” quickly, Danielle Lang, a lawyer for CLC, said in court last week.

The plaintiffs had asked that Alabama be required to take several steps to let affected voters know they could now vote. Among them: mail them a letter, update the secretary of state’s website, change the state’s voter registration application to say which felonies now leads to disenfranchisement, and post notices at the DMV and other state offices.

But the office of Secretary of State John Merrill (pictured), a Republican, had argued that all of those steps were too burdensome or unnecessary.

“It doesn’t have space on the form for list with 60 specific crimes,” a lawyer for Merrill’s office said in court, referring to the request to change the registration form.

Corey Goldstone, a CLC spokesman, said Monday the group did not plan to appeal the ruling.

This post has been updated.

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