Felon voting suit by ACLU dismissed

Published 10:07 pm Friday, October 10, 2008

MONTGOMERY – A Montgomery judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union to clarify which ex-felons in Alabama can register to vote, in a decision that means the issue won’t be resolved before the Nov. 4 election.

Circuit Judge Tracy McCooey said the ACLU’s clients lacked legal standing to sue because they had not taken steps necessary to do so. Two had not tried to register to vote. The third client had attempted to register, but had not exhausted possible appeals in probate court before going to the circuit court.

Because of that, “this court lacks jurisdiction to even decide the merits of the case,” McCooey wrote.

ACLU attorney Bobby Segall said Friday it’s very likely his clients will appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court, but even if the court expedited the case, there would be no way to obtain a ruling before an Oct. 24 deadline for new voters to qualify for the ballot.

If the issue can’t be resolved before the election Nov. 4, Segall wants to get a court ruling before 2010, when many major state offices will be on the ballot.

“It would be nice to get this resolved before the election, but this is a significant ongoing problem,” he said.

At issue is a law passed by the Legislature in 2003 that says felons who committed crimes of moral turpitude can’t vote, but those who committed other crimes can. The problem is the Legislature did not create a definitive list of what crimes fall in each group.

The governor’s office came up with a list of more than 400 crimes of moral turpitude that was used until last month to reject ex-felons’ registration applications and remove those already on the voter rolls.

The state attorney general and the state Administrative Office of Courts each developed their own lists that are much shorter than the governor’s.

Secretary of State Beth Chapman, a Republican, expressed pleasure Friday with the ruling by McCooey, a Democrat.

“What we had was a case where the ACLU was trying to say that citizens who have felony convictions were being disenfranchised from voting when they had not even attempted to register to vote,” Chapman said. “That is an insult to the democratic process and all those who are legally qualified to vote in our state.”

According to the secretary of state’s office, 9,692 people were removed from the state’s voter roles between Sept. 17, 2007 and Oct. 3, 2008 because of felony convictions. Much of that time the governor’s long list was used because Riley was in charge of Alabama’s voter registration computer database.

Chapman took over the database in late September and began advising county voter registrars to consult the attorney general’s shorter list and to seek the advice of their county attorney, district attorney or her office’s attorney if they needed help making decisions.

Trey Granger, director of elections for Montgomery County, said he has received a few absentee ballot applications from people in the city and county jail, and he always checks to see if they are still on the voter rolls.

“It’s a confusing matter,” he said.