Governor’s list bars vote to shoplifters

Published 10:47 pm Saturday, October 4, 2008

BIRMINGHAM – A list of crimes compiled by the governor’s office and used to disqualify Alabama voters includes hundreds of felonies – such as animal cruelty and shoplifting – not previously considered serious enough to cost convicted criminals their voting rights.

State court administrators say the list includes far too many offenses and has been wrongly used for months by county registrars to disqualify an undetermined number of state voters ahead of the Nov. 4 presidential election.

Republican Gov. Bob Riley’s office said it did nothing wrong, but Democrats say the move may cost tens of thousands of qualified voters their right to cast a ballot next month – a number large enough to sway the outcome of some races.

The secretary of state’s office said it is trying to determine the size of the problem and fix it before Election Day. Officials haven’t been able to determine exactly how many voters may be affected because of how new the information is and the huge number of disqualifying crimes involved.

“It’s a very fast-moving issue that we were just hit with,” said state elections official Adam Thompson.

With Riley serving as a federal judge’s court-appointed overseer of Alabama’s election system, legal aides to Riley last year compiled a list of 444 felonies they considered to be convictions of moral turpitude, which state law says are the only crimes that disqualify citizens from voting. Riley’s office released a list of the crimes to The Associated Press late Thursday.

The governor’s list includes about 70 felonies that court administrators and state attorneys general previously have said involve moral turpitude, including violent crimes like murder, robbery, rape, drug trafficking and numerous sex-related offenses.

But the governor’s legal aides also classified about 370 other crimes as involving moral turpitude, including attempted arson, breaking and entering a vehicle, attempted burglary, criminal mischief, possession of burglary tools and burning a U.S. flag or cross.

The list also includes absentee balloting fraud, cruelty to a dog or cat, domestic violence, forgery, killing livestock illegally, leaving the scene of an accident with an injury, disrupting a funeral, ethics violations and conspiring to set an illegal brush fire.

The Administrative Office of Courts said the governor’s office has no legal authority to classify so many crimes as involving moral turpitude.

After months of denying that the long list was being used to prevent some people from registering to vote and to strike others from voting, the governor’s office last week admitted its list had been used in error, said Griffin Sikes, AOC legal director.

The mistake surfaced as a federal judge ended Riley’s role as special master in charge of developing a computerized system for voter registration.

Civil libertarians and some Democrats have accused Republicans of attempting to suppress voter registration, but Riley spokesman Jeff Emerson said it was “ridiculous” to suggest Riley’s office was part of such an effort.

Alabama’s elections system has been plagued by confusion and lawsuits over the hazy definition of which felonies are “crimes of moral turpitude.” Emerson said the governor’s office was forced to come up with its own list because court administrators failed to compile one.

While court administrators and the attorney general’s office have identified a relatively small number of crimes as involving moral turpitude based on state law and court rulings, Emerson said the shorter list is incomplete.

“Our legal staff … put in hundreds of hours into researching both case law and statutory law to come up with a comprehensive list of crimes of moral turpitude,” he said.

Republican Secretary of State Beth Chapman’s office was placed in charge of voter registration after a court ended Riley’s oversight.

Thompson, who oversees compliance with federal voting law for the secretary of state, said staffers learned of potential problems with the governor’s list only this week from the Administrative Office of Courts.

“It’s our goal to see that every eligible voter can cast a ballot on Election Day,” he said.