Ala. GOP pressure ends prisoner registration drive

Published 5:36 pm Thursday, September 18, 2008

BIRMINGHAM (AP) – Alabama Prisons Commissioner Richard Allen stopped a voter registration drive for inmates Thursday under pressure from the Alabama Republican Party.

In a letter to state Republican Party Chairman Mike Hubbard, Allen said individuals conducting the program “were not doing anything for the inmates that they could not do themselves by simply contacting the Secretary of State’s Office for the voter registration postcard.”

Still, Allen said he decided to stop the drive because of a section in the state code that prohibits using state-owned property to promote or advance candidates for election.

“While it is not clear that assisting voters to register would violate those provisions, I cannot expose departmental employees to that possibility,” he wrote.

The commissioner, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Bob Riley, said his department also did not want to invite a situation “where perhaps dozens of volunteers or even the candidates themselves will show up at a prison to register potential voters.”

A coalition of groups had started registering inmates to vote this week. Their goal was to get the inmates to request absentee ballots and cast them in the general election Nov. 4.

Allen’s letter to Hubbard was in response to one the chairman e-mailed him earlier in the day, saying the GOP supports the idea of registering more people to vote, but not when it comes to prisoners.

“Furthermore, I have concerns about potential issues with how this effort is being monitored to ensure no form of voter fraud occurs,” wrote Hubbard, who is also minority leader of the Alabama House, which votes on the prison system’s budget.

Hubbard’s letter came two days after The Associated Press reported that a coalition of groups led by a community activist, the Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, began registering inmates to vote in state lockups this week. Nearly 80 filled out registration forms in two days.

Glasgow, a Democrat from Dothan who served time for robbery and drug convictions, said the state is illegally denying people the right to vote. It’s a right they maintain despite being in prison, he said.

“I’m just appalled,” Glasgow said after learning of Allen’s decision. “How can the people who are supposed to be upholding the law break the law?”

He had planned to continue the effort with other members of the coalition, which he said includes Republicans and Democrats.

“I think they’re more worried about me being a Democrat than anything,” said Glasgow. “The chairman of the Republican Party and the chairman of the Democratic Party can go in there with me and monitor it to make sure it’s nonpartisan.”

Glasgow, a pastor, intends to turn in the registration forms and wants return to the lockups later to make sure inmates mail in absentee forms. He said the project is about human rights and preparing prisoners to return to society, not politics.

“We’re just doing what the Bible says, visiting people in prison and ministering to them,” he said.

About 3,000 people could be eligible to vote from inside Alabama prisons, Glasgow said, and he had planned to register as many as possible in coming weeks.

Alabama law prohibits felons convicted of “crimes of moral turpitude” from voting unless they have had their rights restored. State law doesn’t define such crimes, but court opinions have said they include major offenses like murder, robbery and rape plus some lesser offenses, like taking a stolen car across state lines.

Glasgow’s drive concentrated on registering prisoners who have been convicted only of drug possession, which an attorney general’s opinion issued in 2005 did not define as a crime of moral turpitude.

Confusion over which crimes involve “moral turpitude” has led to litigation seeking the restoration of prisoners’ voting rights. The most recent was filed in July by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three ex-inmates.