Advocates back bill to ease voting rights restoration for formerly convicted

By: - March 8, 2023 4:07 pm
Rev. Nicole Newton of First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham speaks at the podium Wednesday at the Alabama State House.

Rev. Nicole Newton of First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham speaks Wednesday at the Alabama State House in support of voting rights. Newton and others spoke in support of HB 96, which would make it easier for people who have been incarcerated to be able to vote again. (Ralph Chapoco/Alabama Reflector)

Activists Wednesday urged passage of a bill to make it easier to restore voting rights to people released from prison.

Faith in Action Alabama, a nonprofit faith-based organization based in Birmingham, called for passage of HB 96, sponsored by Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, that would eliminate a certification requirement for those trying to get their right to vote back.

“I am a family member of a formerly incarcerated individual who has not been allowed to vote,” said Rev. Nicole Newton of First Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, who spoke in favor of the bill. “And I know personally, that having that right restored helps people to reintegrate into the community, to really claim their citizenship and their space in our state as their own, and is their God-given right as part of this country, and as a part of the beloved one.”

The bill’s fate will depend on getting Republican support in the GOP-controlled Legislature. House Judiciary Committee chair Jim Hill, R-Odenville and Senate Judiciary Committee chair Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, said in separate interviews Wednesday that they had not read the bill.

“I would be hesitant to be for or against anything without reading the particulars,” Barfoot said.

People who have served time for a criminal conviction in Alabama have often struggled to regain their right to vote. Some convictions, like treason, permanently bar a person from voting. Those convicted of 12 offenses, from murder to sexual abuse, must first obtain a pardon from the Alabama Board of Pardon and Paroles before getting their voting rights back.

For years, Alabama denied the vote to people convicted of crimes of “moral turpitude.”  But before 2017, the state did not define those crimes, leaving it up to local governments to decide. The system led to a patchwork of standards for which convictions would cost a person his or her right to vote.

In 2017, the Legislature approved a bill listing 46 crimes under moral turpitude. Those convicted of other offenses can apply to the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles to obtain a certificate of eligibility to have their voting rights restored. They must also have paid all their fines and fees to receive the certificate.

Hall’s bill would eliminate the application requirement for the certificate of eligibility, making the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles responsible for reviewing and notifying people who are eligible to have their voting rights restored.

The bill would also allow low-income individuals to have their voting rights restored if they have paid their fines and restitution or are in compliance with a payment plan for court costs and fees.

Several people who had been convicted of a crime spoke at the gathering, some of whom already had their voting rights restored and some who are still waiting.

Martha Shearer said she was arrested in September of 1990, was released in 1994 and completed probation in 1995. She is eligible to vote.

“I have two sons,” she said. “One that I had while I was incarcerated, and they have to go with me to the polls.”

Shearer said she has a son who was just released and is not allowed to vote. She said he may never regain his right to vote, even with a pardon.

“But I have to let them know that it is important to vote,” she added.

Another was Carmone Owens, a violence intervention specialist who said a prior conviction means he will not be able to vote for decades.

“I am directly impacted by this,” he said. “I made my mistakes. I paid my dues, I paid my debt, but I am not going to be allowed to vote until June 2042.”


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Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.