Ronald McKeithen and Dori Miles during the recognition of honorees at the Voting Rights Reception in Birmingham, Alabama, U.S., on Thursday September 21st, 2023. (Andi Rice for Alabama Reflector)
Darius Gamble’s mother and grandmother were part of the Civil Rights Movement. They instilled in him the value and the importance of exercising this right to vote.
And Gamble exercised that power regularly — until he couldn’t.
Convicted on a charge of trafficking marijuana, he served three years in prison before being released in 2009. From the moment of his release, he worked to get back his right to vote. It took him 13 years.
“Your vote is your voice, your voice is your power,” Gamble said. “(It’s) just getting that message out, with regards to you having power and the power is in voting.”
Gamble was one of 24 people honored at the My Voice, My Vote reception held in Birmingham Thursday by Greater Birmingham Ministries. The event celebrated people who had their voting rights restored after losing them over due to previous criminal convictions.
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“These are all folks who had to endure tremendous obstacles and hardships, losing their voting rights, being incarcerated in many of the cases, and getting out, having done their time but not being able to vote, and having to continue to feel punished, and isolated, and separated from their communities,” said Dori Miles, a voting rights restoration specialist for Greater Birmingham Ministries who spearheaded the effort to restore the voting rights of the honorees.
Alabama’s 1901 constitution banned individuals who committed crimes of “moral turpitude” from voting, part of the document’s broader project of denying Black Alabamians and poor whites the right to vote.
But the constitution did not define crimes of moral turpitude, leaving it up to counties to determine who would be denied voting rights. A crime in one county could lead a person to have their voting rights restored while a person committing the same infraction in a different part of the state would lose the right to vote.
The Alabama Legislature in 2017 approved a bill defining the specific crimes that constitute “moral turpitude” and established a uniform process for those who lost their right to vote to become eligible again.
The process can be cumbersome, filled with different obstacles depending on the type of crime and severity of the infraction. Some offenses require a pardon. Other formerly incarcerated people need to pay off their fines and fees. And others need to apply for a state pardon.
“It is so difficult that we had to build an entire project to help people just with that,” said Madeline Minkoff, a former intern with Return My Vote, a project of Greater Birmingham Ministries, who helped honorees get their voting rights back.
To get the ballot back, Gamble first had to clear accumulated fines and fees. The debt first stood at $50,000, but the state tacked on an additional 30% collection fee, pushing it to $63,000 because he did not make the full payments within five years.
Gamble estimates he still has $48,000 left to pay but applied with the Board of Pardons and Paroles for a pardon, which would restore his voting rights.
The Board granted him the pardon last September. He voted in November.
“I teared up,” Gamble said. “I cried. I have a video of me crying. It was a very emotional moment for me because it was a long journey.”
The evening featured speakers from all walks of the community, including Danny Carr, district attorney for the 10th Judicial Circuit in Birmingham and Bessemer, and Jefferson County District Judge Maria Fortune.
Carr discussed his background as a child raised by a single parent in a rough neighborhood in Birmingham. Carr had a brother who was murdered. He said that giving those convicted of crimes “second chances” was a top priority.
He looked into shortening sentences for people who committed crimes that did not involve any physical harm, and he invested efforts into job fairs for people with a criminal history.
“You can’t fight crime by over-policing,” he said. “The way you fight crime is by changing the trajectory of people’s lives.”
Having won back the right to vote, several people at the reception said they were going out to help others do so.
“I am facilitating my first registration, restoration event this coming Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama,” Gamble said.
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