He completed a prison sentence in Alabama. Getting the vote back was hard

Nonprofits try to help formerly incarcerated people navigate a difficult system

By: - May 9, 2023 7:01 am

Alonzo Hurth sits in an attorney’s office in Birmingham, Alabama on April 27, 2023. Hurth won release from prison in 2021 but ran into difficulties trying to get his right to vote back. (Andi Rice for Alabama Reflector)

As Alonzo Hurth recalls, he was under the influence when he got into an argument with a woman he said had taken money from him. So he opened her bureau, got her wallet, and took the money.

Before he knew it, Hurth was arrested and charged with robbery. He had three prior felony convictions, all for forgeries, and was looking at a life sentence.

“When I went to court, the judge told me if I didn’t plead guilty, he would send me to prison with a life without parole sentence,” Hurth said. “I didn’t plead guilty because I didn’t see why I had to be considered for a life without parole sentence when I hadn’t hurt anybody. I had three forgery cases and one first-degree robbery.”

He rolled the dice and went to trial with support from the public defender. Hurth was found guilty. Today, the offense would warrant a 13-year sentence, with three to five years in prison. In 1994, it meant life in prison without parole.

He spent two years in county jail before getting transferred to Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer. It was described to him as the “House of Pain.”

Hurth tried to make the best of his situation. He tutored fellow inmates. He worked as a cook. And he helped in the infirmary. Hurth wheeled gurneys where people were injured.  Sometimes he stayed close to people dying in prison, bringing them meals and cleaning their rooms.

Alabama Appleseed heard of Hurth’s case in 2021, and worked with him. 

The staff interviewed him, asked him about his life and how he ended up in prison. They did their research and learned of his issue with alcohol, how that led to the forged checks and eventually to the robbery case.

The judge eventually ruled in his favor and let him free a couple of months later, releasing him to a halfway house. He found a job at a car dealership at the service department greeting customers as they arrived at the center.

After that, he would work to get his voting rights back.

“Being in prison helped me realize how important it is to be able to vote,” Hurth said. “You have the opportunity to make a difference. I believe that one vote can make a difference.”

A community effort

Hurth would not have had the opportunity to have their voting rights restored had it not been for dedicated volunteers determined to expand access to the ballot box for people with a criminal history.

The League of Women Voters of Greater Birmingham, Faith in Action Alabama and Greater Birmingham Ministries are coordinating efforts to restore voting rights for people who have felonies and give those who are currently incarcerated access to the ballot box.

The three organizations operate essentially three programs when it comes to voting rights and the criminal justice system.

One is what they call direct access, which essentially provides services to people who need to have their voting rights restored.

“We go to Birmingham and Bessemer drug court where we expect that a lot of the people in the drug court will be eligible to register to vote but many of them may not realize that,” said Dori Miles, a retired attorney who volunteers with Greater Birmingham Ministries on voting rights restoration.

Dana Ellis, a volunteer with the League of Women Voters, visits drug courts and field offices of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, as well as the drug court with other volunteers, asking people in the lobby of the drug court if they are interested in voting.

Some are hesitant because they are unaware they can vote even with a criminal history. The volunteers will ask about their specific situations, their criminal histories and the offenses listed on their records. They will then review their records in the system and compare the offenses against the list of crimes identified in the 2017 law.

They will then walk the clients through the process of getting their voting rights back.

Accompanying Ellis is Martha Shearer, who was convicted of a felony and worked to get her voting rights back. Volunteers are available to assist with completing an application to allow them to get their voting rights.

Hurth and Toni Barnett, the administrative director for the Offender Alumni Association, a nonprofit that offers resources for people connected with the criminal justice system, are two of the beneficiaries. The volunteers helped the two not only complete the application, but also tracked the status of their certification of eligibility to register to vote (CERV) applications to ensure the process continued to move forward.

“She (Ellis) does a follow up,” Barnett said. “Volunteers follow up to note when an individual is registered to vote. Should there be an issue with A CERV application, individuals are given contact information to reach out for assistance.”

Some volunteers know the process first-hand. Barnett volunteers with League of Women Voters of Greater Birmingham helping to generate awareness for voter rights restoration and help those with felony convictions get the right to vote back.

In 2014, Barnett’s life took a turn and she plead out to an 8 year sentence. She would end up spending 7 years incarcerated before getting released on parole. She spent one year on parole in Alabama because officials let her leave the state. Barnett decided to move back to Alabama because she has property here, which was less expensive than to pay rent to live in Texas.


Toni Barnett poses in an attorney’s office on April 27, 2023. Barnett served an eight-year sentence. She is the administrative director of the Offender Alumni Association, and volunteers to help people get their right to vote back. (Andi Rice for Alabama Reflector)

Voting had been a right that Barnett exercised vigorously prior to getting sentenced — and she wanted that right back as soon as possible.

“You can’t complain about who is in office if you don’t do anything,” Barnett said. “The thing to do is to vote.”

Disenfranchising people with a criminal record

Hurth’s and Barnett’s experiences are not unique.

According to a report published by The Sentencing Project in 2022, about 4.6 million Americans were unable to vote in that year, roughly 2% of the voting age population, because they have a felony conviction in their history.

37 states have laws on the books stopping people with a criminal history from voting. 22 states prevent people who are currently serving sentences from voting while another 15 states ban those who are serving time on parole and probation from voting.

There are 11 states, including Alabama, that impose voting restrictions even after the completion of parole and probation requirements.

“The overall trend is that southern states tend to fall into the stricter, more complicated, group,” said Blair Bowie, the Restore Your Vote Director for the Campaign Legal Center, an advocate for restoring voting rights for those with a history of felony convictions. “That really has to do with the history of felony disenfranchisement in this country.”

Prior to the Civil War, states only sporadically disenfranchised people with a felony conviction. Once the conflict was over, the legislatures implemented rules that led to increasing disenfranchisement of potential voters, particularly African Americans who had recently gained political power.

The restrictions continue to fall hardest on Black Americans. According to the Sentencing Project, about 1 in 19 Black Americans of voting age cannot vote because of a criminal conviction. That is 3.5 times the rate that of other races. Among the adult Black population , 5.3% are disenfranchised, compared to 1.5% for the non-Black population.

Alabama and disenfranchisement

A poster from 1901 with black and white photos of the more than 100 delegations to the Alabama constitutional convention that year. Credit: Alabama Department of Archives and History
A poster showing the delegates to Alabama’s 1901 constitutional convention. The convention, likely convened through voter fraud, framed a governing document that took away the vote from most Blacks and poor whites, and centralized all power in Montgomery. The constitution remains in effect in Alabama. Credit: Alabama Department of Archives and History

According to the Campaign Legal Center’s estimate, at least 136,000 people in Alabama had a disqualifying conviction in state court during 2019. The figure does not include those convicted of federal offenses or crimes from out of the state.

“Alabama has disenfranchisement because the framers of the 1901 Constitution were openly and intentionally using it to disenfranchise Black voters,” Bowie said. “They explicitly said so and the Supreme Court has held that as well.”

Formerly incarcerated people face many obstacles in getting their right to vote back. People must pay off fines and fees, sometimes running into thousands of dollars, before their voting rights are restored. Advocates also say information for people to restore their voting rights is not well circulated to the public.

The 1901 Alabama Constitution has banned individuals who committed crimes of “moral turpitude” from voting. But the document did not spell out what those crimes were. That created a patchwork system that allowed the clerks in the different counties throughout the state to decide what crimes within their jurisdictions could be considered crimes of “moral turpitude.”

In 2017, the Legislature passed a law that made a list of specific offenses that counted as “moral turpitude.”

The rule starts with some crimes the state considers so heinous that a person will never have voting rights restored. People convicted of treason are not eligible to vote.

Then there is a list of 11 offenses that require a pardon from the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles. Many of the crimes listed are those perpetrated against another person such as murder, rape, sodomy and other sexually based offenses. Others are crimes related to child pornography.

The remaining offenses on the list are those that allow a person to regain their voting rights. These include manslaughter, assault and kidnapping, but also terrorism and forgery, among others.

Then there are offenses that people keep their voting rights even if they are currently incarcerated.

To have voting rights restored, a person must have completed their full sentence, including parole or probation. That person must also have paid all their fines, fees, restitution and court costs on the convictions of moral turpitude.

An individual will complete the application and submit it to the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. They are then issued a CERV that they take to the Board of Registrars when they register to vote.

Still difficult voting

Even with the definition in place, people with a felony conviction continue to be disenfranchised. Part of the reason deals with simple ignorance about the law — along with default belief that a prior felony record bars them from participating in the political process.

“Often it is not until people have been out of prison, or out of probation or parole, for years, that they learn that certain crimes do not take away their right to vote, if they ever find out at all,” Bowie said. “We talk to a lot of people who haven’t been voting, thinking they are disenfranchised but have not actually lost the right to vote at all because their conviction is not one of the crimes of moral turpitude. That is really common with drug convictions for example.”

Some lay the blame squarely on the former Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill.

“He openly said he was not going to spend any Alabama money trying to inform people of their rights,” Bowie said. “This is really all fallen on community organizations to try and help people determine if they have been disqualified, and if so how to restore their voting rights.”

Merrill disputed that argument in a phone interview last week, saying he implemented several programs to inform voters about their rights and to register voters.

“When I became secretary, I made a committed and concerted effort that we were going to ensure that each and every eligible U.S. citizen that is a resident of the state of Alabama would have the opportunity to become a registered voter and obtain a photo ID,” Merrill said.

Merrill said he did make an effort to visit with individuals and groups interested in voter rights restoration, but he did not go through the voter rolls to specifically target people with a prior criminal conviction to inform them of their voting rights.

“I wasn’t going to spend money just for those specific groups because the next time somebody comes to me and says, ‘OK, we just want you to send voter registration information to all Chinese Americans living in Alabama. And then we want you to send voter registration information to all African Americans living in Alabama. And then we want you to send them just to people with blue eyes living in Alabama. And then we want you to send them just to the people with red hair in Alabama,’” Merrill said.

Prior to meeting Miles, Hurth hadn’t even thought about getting back his right to vote or even how the ballot box can have a profound impact on his life.

“I had no idea how to restore my voting rights,” Hurth said. “I never voted before I went to prison. I only heard of people voting, but I had never participated in voting.”

Alonzo Hurth talks about the process of getting his right to vote back in Birmingham, Alabama on April 27, 2023. Hurth was released from prison in 2021, but faced obstacles in getting his voting rights restored. (Andi Rice for Alabama Reflector)

Miles reached out to Hurth a couple of months after he was released through Ronald McKeithen with Alabama Appleseed, which helps people who had been incarcerated.

She then obtained information about Hurth and went to Alacourt to dig into details of his criminal history and whether he still owed any fines and fees. She found that Hurth had a robbery conviction along with the forgeries.

Miles then compared the convictions against the different offenses identified as crimes of moral turpitude and realized that Hurth could restore his right to vote by completing a CERV application with the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.

“For some reason, the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles had some incorrect data about him,” Miles said.

The attorney who represented Hurth worked to clear the confusion.

“ABPP mailed a list of cases allegedly tied to him but when I went to the Clerk’s office to search and pay for the records allegedly tied to him, the Clerk’s office said there were no cases with the provided information connected to him,” said Alex LaGanke, the attorney who represented Hurth. “I had to get the Clerk’s office to type up a letter in writing to submit to ABPP that there was no connection between my client and alleged cases.”

From there Hurth was able to obtain his certificate that he took to the registrar’s office to get a voter registration card.

“Since then, he is somebody who has really stepped up to the plate because voting is a responsibility,” Miles said.

Barnett also had to do some legwork to get her voting rights back. But she had an easier time, needing only to be told of the process before working on her case herself.

Unlike Alabama, Texas automatically restores a person’s right to vote after completion of a sentence or receipt of a pardon.

Unsure of the rules, Barnett went to see them to see how to get her voting rights restored. While completing her parole in Alabama, the parole officer connected her with Greater Birmingham Ministries and the League of Women Voters of Greater Birmingham.

Ellis talked her through the process. She told her about the certificate of eligibility to register to vote. She completed the application, along with the required paperwork, and after a few weeks, she received the paperwork in the mail.

She then took the certificate to the local registrar’s office to get her voter registration card to begin voting.

Voting rights

Besides direct services, groups working on voting rights restoration use other approaches. The organizations have a partnership with Richard Fording, a professor at the University of Alabama who studies felony disenfranchisement.

Miles and Fording have developed a website during the past year that provides information on voting rights restoration and acts as an intake for people who want assistance for getting their voting rights back.

“Basically, we train students in using Alacourt,” Miles said. “The students are terrifically smart.”

Students speak with those who request a consultation to determine whether they are eligible to have their voting rights restored. They will take information from the participant, then use Alacourt to better understand a person’s criminal history. The students will then compare their records against the offenses that are listed as crimes of “moral turpitude.”

They will then work through the process with the applicant to start them on the process of getting their voting rights back.

“I am their main backup,” Miles said. “We always put a couple of sets of eyes on any work that is done. We make sure that we are giving out the best information we possibly can.”

Miles estimates that program has assisted more than 500 people.

The groups also try to reach hundreds of people who remain eligible to vote who are either in county jails waiting for their trials to be completed, or perhaps those who have been convicted of felonies and are in the custody of the Department of Corrections. There are currently people in prison who have the right to vote because they were not convicted of a crime of moral turpitude.

Those individuals remain eligible to vote and must use absentee ballots to participate in the political process because they cannot leave incarceration.

The process for securing an absentee ballot can be complicated. The application can be found on the Alabama Secretary of State’s website, which asks the applicant to check a box with a reason why a person needs to vote absentee. Among the choices is that a person is incarcerated.

The voter completes the application and sends it back to the Secretary of State’s Office who then mails them an absentee ballot for them to complete and vote.

PHOENIX, AZ – NOVEMBER 05: Votes are counted by staff at the Maricopa County Elections Department office on November 5, 2020 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images)

“People who are incarcerated or in jail really need assistance with this process because typically they do not have access to computers or printers,” Miles said. “How are they going to get this application that is easily downloadable on the Internet?”

Miles and other volunteers travel to St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville each quarter and participate in the re-entry workshop that the staff hosts. Participants are generally men who are nearing their release dates, but there are others who attend who remain eligible to vote.

“The program that we do is based on being able to assist them with getting an absentee application if they are eligible,” Miles said.

Further obstacles

Volunteers also travel to the jail and register people to vote and assist with absentee ballot applications, so they receive an absentee ballot. That could soon be a crime.

HB 209, sponsored by Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, would make it a felony to assist people with absentee ballots. The bill passed the House on Thursday on a 77-28 vote.

“I think a lot of this is a holdover, a relic, from Jim Crow times,” Bowie said. “Both the disenfranchisement and the over targeting and disproportionate impact of the criminal legal system on Black and Brown communities — that is all by design and has never been changed.”

Bowie said the system excludes a block of people with a unique perspective on what it means to live — a viewpoint they could add to the political process.

“The thing they all have in common is that they have all been through the criminal legal system,” Bowie said. “They have all been through the ringer. They understand what it really means to have the state control every aspect of your life, and what the injustices and problems are with our carceral state.”

Hurth says the vote is important to him because he wants to work to change some of Alabama’s prison policies.

“You’ve got life without parole,” he said. “You have got the Habitual Offender Act, and by voting you get the opportunity to vote on these things, which could make a change in the law.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.