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Written by RMV Intern Shanaya Daughtrey

The history of voter disenfranchisement in Alabama is rooted in racism and the preservation of white supremacy. When the Alabama Constitutional Convention convened in 1901, white wealthy plantation owners had one primary goal in mind- keeping Black people away from the ballot box by any means necessary.

Alabama has a long and odious track record when it comes to the disenfranchisement of historically marginalized communities, specifically the African American community. In 1901, Alabama revised its Constitution to expand disenfranchisement to all crimes involving “moral turpitude,” which encompassed misdemeanors and even non-criminal acts. Although some clauses clearly violated provisions in the United States Constitution, that did not hinder Alabama state leaders from banning anyone who wasn’t a male over 21, didn’t own property, couldn’t pass a literacy test, inaccurately guessed how many gum balls were in a jar, couldn’t pay a poll tax, or were convicted of certain crimes from voting.

Despite the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 banning such draconian practices, conservative white lawmakers have used every tactic allowed within the walls of federal law and Supreme Court precedent to maintain an obstinate hold on power. The infamous Shelby County v. Holder (2013) Supreme Court decision was a significant step backwards in terms of protection against voter suppression tactics. With this ruling, section 5 of the VRA — which required certain jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to submit any proposed changes in voting procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal district court in D.C. — was ruled as unconstitutional.

So, in addition to Alabama voters having to worry whether or not their name has been purged from a voter roll, Alabamians who have been convicted of a felony also have to grapple with the odds that they might be ineligible to vote indefinitely or wrestle with the question of voter eligibility as a whole.

The state of Alabama has a history of preventing people from voting even after they have fully served their sentence while others are only able to restore their rights if they comply with a cumbersome process. Until the passage of the 2017 law that arose from the case of Thompson v. Alabama, there was no clear definition of “moral turpitude,” nor had the state created a complete list of felonies that disqualify a voter. With the passing of that bill, the term “moral turpitude” was defined for the purpose of determining which citizens could vote. Even though this bill was a step in the right direction, according to the Sentencing Project in Locked Out 2022: Estimates of People Denied Voting Rights, “In three states- Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee- more than 8 percent of the adult population, one of every 13 adults, is disenfranchised,” and more than “one in 10 African American adults is disenfranchised in eight states- Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia.”

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. echoed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1957 in his “Give Us the Ballot” speech: “Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic human rights.”

Since its inception, Return My Vote has been dedicated to helping restore the voting rights of every Alabama citizen who has lost their voting rights due to a felony conviction.

The work that Return My Vote and Greater Birmingham Ministries are doing is in lockstep with what a true democracy should aim to do- ensuring that every citizen has an equal opportunity in casting their ballot.

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