On his block in Mobile Metro Jail, Alvarez Ruiz says his political views have made him the “sore thumb” among his cellmates — a young, black convicted felon planning to cast a vote for Donald J. Trump.
“Why not treat this country like a business? We trade with other countries all the time, and we’re losing three, four, five times as much as we’re gaining,” Ruiz said. “People saying, ‘Well, he’s racist,’ but they’re worrying about the wrong thing. If you’re trying to make America great again, worrying about color is not going to do it.”
With the election set 10 days before his scheduled release, Ruiz will have to cast his vote for the New York billionaire from behind bars via an absentee ballot. Whether his vote counts will be up to judicial officers in Mississippi, Ruiz’ last state of residence.There are 38 states that automatically restore felons’ voting rights following their release, but in Alabama, a recent lawsuit is challenging the constitutionality of stripping certain convicted felons of those rights long after they’ve served time.
According to the Alabama secretary of state’s office, if a felon is registered to vote prior to their conviction, the responsibility of removing their name from the list of eligible voters has for years fallen to each county’s board of registrars.
Ex-felons can apply to the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles (ABPP) to have those voting rights restored, but only if they have paid all their court fines and fees. Based on ABPP’s annual report, only 572 of the 2,009 felons who applied to have their voting rights restored in 2015 were successful.
The current lawsuit is being brought by Greater Birmingham Ministries on behalf of 10 convicted felons from across Alabama who have either applied to restore their voting rights and been denied or who couldn’t afford to pay their outstanding court fines following their prison sentence.
However, other plaintiffs weren’t even allowed to apply for the restoration of their voting rights. That’s because some crimes in Alabama — those involving “moral turpitude” — permanently prevent convicted felons from voting.
Alabama’s history of “moral turpitude”
While Alabama’s poll taxes, literacy tests and open gerrymandering in the Jim Crow era were well documented, the Yellowhammer State also ran afoul of the Voting Rights Act several times — including the 24 federal objections to state election laws proposed between 1990 and 2008.
Though the legal challenge to the current laws governing felons’ voting rights includes black and white plaintiffs, it frames much of its argument with the backdrop of Alabama’s history of racially discriminatory voting practices. It also specifically takes issue with the phrase “moral turpitude.”
Marc Mauer is the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to a “fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system.” Among the constitutions of all 50 states, the phrase “moral “turpitude” is unique to Alabama.
“There’s a documented racist history behind it, but even setting that aside, the fact that you’d have such a policy with no guidance about how to interpret it leaves it open to causing all sorts of problems,” Mauer said. “What is that supposed to look like in terms of equity and fairness? It’s a very slippery slope to go down.”It’s not the first time Alabama has had issues with the phrase, either. In the 1980s, a similar lawsuit accused the state of using its legal system to subvert the black vote by disqualifying registered voters who’d been convicted of felonies involving moral turpitude — a phrase that first appeared during the state’s 1901 Constitutional Convention.
Under a legal challenge, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that “discriminatory intent motivated” the law before striking down its relevant passages. Then, in 1996, Alabama adopted new laws stripping felons of their voting rights and once again used moral turpitude as the barometer to determine which felons deserve to reclaim those rights.
Regardless of the intent, opponents say the outcome of the second law has had the same effect as its predecessor. According to the Sentencing Project, the law has “disenfranchised” more than 250,000 Alabama voters — including 15 percent of Alabama’s black voting-age population.
However, another issue with the law — one the state itself has acknowledged — is that it’s ambiguous and leaves the standard for revoking someone’s voting rights open to interpretation by failing to clearly outline what crimes actually constitute “moral turpitude.”
“In most other states, a person has their right to vote taken for a period of time, but rarely do they make distinctions between felonies,” Mauer said. “If there was a clear-cut way this was supposed to happen, you would think someone would have found a piece of paper by now that describes what that is.”
Officials in Alabama are still looking for that piece of paper. In fact, Secretary of State John Merrill jokingly compared the task of finding a concrete list of crimes involving moral turpitude to Ponce de León’s search for the “fountain of youth.”
“You don’t want anything that’s uncertain when it comes to people being able to vote,” Merrill said. “You want it to be clear, and right now it’s not as clear as it should be.”
Ambiguous laws, disparaging outcomes
Merrill is not the only state official that’s expressed concern with the current law.
In a 2007 memo, former director of the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts’ legal division Griffin Sikes said the continued use of the state’s moral turpitude standard was “suspect,” and went on to call its history in the state “dubious” and “ignoble.”
As written, the law fails to list the specific state statutes a person would have to violate in order for their crime to involve “moral turpitude.” That has led to different interpretations from the board of registrars in Alabama’s 67 counties tasked with removing felons convicted of those offenses from the state’s list of eligible voters.
“It’s those local judicial officers who make the interpretation as to whether somebody is eligible to vote,” Merrill explained. “We do have a list published in our handbook that helps people understand what they need to follow because there’s a difference in things like possession of marijuana and possession of marijuana with an intent to sell it.”
Over the years, though, the issue has actually been complicated by attempts to clarify it. In 2005, an attorney general’s opinion named several disqualifying crimes not listed in state law, including “income tax evasion, forgery and all crimes where fraud is an element.”
In 2008, the AOC issued its own list in hopes of clarifying the process for the judicial officers in each county. However, according to the lawsuit, the AOC’s interpretation is still “incongruent” with the AG opinion.
Today, one or both of those lists are reviewed and cross-referenced with the actual state statute when local registrars ultimately determine which convicted felons are removed from their respective voter rolls.
Because of that ambiguity, the lawsuit claims registrars in Alabama fail to “uniformly follow” the moral turpitude requirement. A few state legislators have even expressed concern that some registrars could interpret it to mean any felony conviction would prevent a resident from voting in the future.
“It’s still not clear, and that’s why we’ve pushed for legislation the past two sessions to address that,” Merrill said. “We want to make sure everybody who’s supposed to vote gets to vote.”
Bills sponsored by State Rep. Mike Jones (R-Andalusia) in 2015 and 2016 aimed to create a definitive list of felony offenses that would lead to a felon’s loss of the right to vote upon conviction. The list included murder, manslaughter, assault, multiple sexual crimes, burglary, several crimes related to theft, robbery, treason, forgery, unlawful distribution of controlled substances, possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance, bigamy, incest, human trafficking and terrorism-related offenses.
While that bill failed twice, lawmakers did manage to pass a 2016 law establishing a timeframe for decisions related to restoration applications through the ABPP. It also required prisons to post information about that process and clarified that outstanding fees from unrelated court cases could not prevent someone from voting.
Merrill said his office would be continuing its efforts in the Legislature. Still, he said if Jones’ bill had made it to the governor’s desk, Alabama might have dodged the lawsuit it’s currently facing in Montgomery.
“I wish [the plaintiffs] had come together with us to help us pass that legislation so it would be clear and in place already,” Merrill said. “I think our end goal is the same. We want every eligible U.S. citizen that’s a resident of Alabama to register to vote, have a photo ID and vote. Period.”
Effect in Mobile
Mobile County’s Board of Registrars has not managed to avoid the confusion caused by the current laws. Though they aren’t named as defendants, the local board of registrars has a small role in the ongoing lawsuit because one of the plaintiffs is a resident of Mobile.
Following a 2014 conviction for trafficking cocaine, Mario Dion Yow — a former Mobile County constable — was removed from the list of registered voters by the Board of Registrars. However, the complaint claims his crime “doesn’t appear as a disqualifying felony” in state law, in the 2005 AG opinion or in the AOC’s clarified list of disqualifying crimes.
Lagniappe reached out to Yow for comment but was unable to reach him before this publication’s press deadline.
Mobile County’s current registrars are Virginia Delchamps, Pat Tyrrell and Shirley Short, all of whom spoke to a Lagniappe reporter during an Oct. 17 conference call. However, the members declined to attribute their comments to any single board member.
When asked about the process used locally to remove voters who, like Yow, have supposedly been convicted of crimes of moral turpitude, one of the board members said the process “is the same statewide in every county.”
“We don’t make those decisions. It’s based on what we get from the Board of Pardons and Paroles,” another member said. “If you’re just a regular voter, we enter you in, but if you come up as a felon, we have to have something from the Board of Pardons and Paroles.”
Those statements, however, seem to be at odds with others from state officials. In a follow-up interview, Merrill’s chief of staff, John Bennett, confirmed that the decision of determining whether a felony involves moral turpitude “truly is up to the Board of Registrars.”
Again, Bennett said the discretion given to those local registrars is likely the reason state election officials have seen different standards of moral turpitude applied in different Alabama counties.
Ballots behind bars
While the laws related convicted felons is unclear, current prisoners and inmates awaiting trial in Alabama or serving time for an offense that doesn’t involve moral turpitude can still vote.
They are allowed to do so using the same absentee ballot process used by other residents who can’t make it to their designated polling location on election day.
However, in her career at Mobile Metro Jail, Capt. Sadie Stallworth said she hasn’t ever seen a large influx of inmates looking to file absentee ballots. She also said the staff doesn’t make deliberate efforts to inform inmates about the option, either.
Despite that, Stallworth said captains at the jail are willing and able to assist any inmate, should they ask.
“I’ve got family members that got felonies under different statutes and things like that, and their right to vote has been stripped from them. But for the most part, I’m ignorant to the system,” Ruiz said. “I don’t get in trouble, so when they put me in a felon uniform, I just immediately thought, ‘Oh well, I can’t vote no more.’”
Ruiz pleaded guilty to federal charges of misprision of justice in March because of his limited role in a drug trafficking operation.
According to court records, Ruiz agreed to ride along in a U-Haul to maintain the false image he and three other men had traveled to Mobile “to move furniture” and not drugs.
Yet, even for inmates serving time for lesser felonies and misdemeanors, there is often an assumption their right to vote has already been lost. Recently, Merrill’s office sent a memo to every corrections facility in Alabama hoping to clarify.
“We told them, if somebody at your facility is supposed to vote, make sure they know they’re to apply to vote by absentee ballot,” Merrill said. “We want to make sure that opportunity is afforded.”
That memo was sent out Sept. 30 — four days after Merrill and other state officials were named as defendants in Greater Birmingham Ministries’ lawsuit. Yet, this week, Ruiz said the vast majority of inmates at Metro had no idea about the absentee ballot option. In fact, Ruiz said he wasn’t aware until a captain asked him about being interviewed for this report.
Mauer said that’s not uncommon in other states, either.
“Theoretically, they certainly have that right. Practically, though, they rarely get it. That’s another real problem,” Mauer said. “There are 700,000 people in U.S. prisons on any given day, and the vast majority are either awaiting trial for a felony conviction or serving time on a misdemeanor.”
While there is only a few days until the Oct. 24 voter registration deadline, Ruiz said he still plans to file his application for an absentee ballot, and he’s not the only one.
Johnny Bazzel, 34, of Semmes is currently awaiting trial after being arrested in September for distribution of a controlled substance. Unless Alabama’s laws regarding moral turpitude are changed, it’s likely the absentee ballot he files will be the last time he participates in this country’s political system.
That last vote, he says, will be for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
“Democrats, they’re for the working man, for the most part,” Bazzel said. “Taking from the poor and giving to the rich, that’s how the Republicans do. That’s just my opinion, though.”
As for Ruiz, he still supports Trump, though he did express some concern over some of the recent turmoil in the GOP nominee’s campaign. In all, Ruiz said, the fact he’ll return home with a felony on his record makes it hard to support someone he believes skirted the law.
“Hillary committed serious felonies, and they’re not even pursuing nobody,” Ruiz said. “If I committed the same type of felonies, they’d forget my name. I’d be under the jail.”
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