Pastor, Alabama prisons settle suit on inmate voting

Published 10:51 am Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Alabama Department of Corrections has settled a lawsuit filed by a Dothan reverend whose voter registration drive for inmates was abruptly halted last month after the state Republican Party chairman complained.

The Rev. Kenneth Glasgow sued the department when officials stopped the registration drive Sept. 18 after GOP chief Mike Hubbard raised objections, including questions about the possibility of voter fraud.

The department initially welcomed the registration drive, saying it fit with efforts to get inmates ready to re-enter society when their sentences are completed.

Under the settlement, Glasgow and his group will no longer be allowed to bring voter registration forms into prisons and mail them after inmates fill them out. Instead, flyers titled “Voting While Incarcerated” will be posted on prison bulletin boards and in inmate law libraries, explaining how to register and obtain absentee ballots. Any copies that are lost, damaged or destroyed must be replaced within five business days.

According to the settlement, Glasgow applied for and received clearance as a clergyman to visit the prisons in that capacity and volunteers in his group will apply for the same status.

He is still able to inform prisoners about their voting rights and tell them what to do to register and vote using absentee ballots.

Glasgow and his coalition of groups had visited three prisons and registered 101 people before the program was stopped last month after two days.

Glasgow registered only prisoners who were actually eligible. Prisoners cannot vote if they have been convicted of offenses considered to involve moral turpitude, such as murder and other violent crimes.

Glasgow, himself a former inmate, said he was stunned by the drive’s cancellation.

“It was just very alarming to me that people’s prejudice and bias would come out in such a way,” Glasgow said Tuesday on his way to minister to inmates at the Bullock County Correctional Facility. “I thought we were in 2008, didn’t know we were in 1968.”

Corrections officials signed the settlement agreement Monday afternoon, four days before Friday’s registration deadline for the general election.

“I’m not going to say I’m pleased, but I’m satisfied,” Glasgow said of the agreement. “We are trying to restore people’s lives — we’re not trying to cause any confusion. We are strictly nonpartisan and this is part of our ministry.”

Commissioner Richard Allen said he supported Glasgow’s idea when he first suggested the drive over the summer, but changed his mind when the program began drawing attention — and criticism.

“I said it sounded like a good idea but didn’t really think it through and what the ramifications would be,” he said.

Hubbard sent Allen an e-mail two days after an Associated Press story about the registration efforts, 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.

Allen said he received phone calls from inmates’ families thanking the department for the registration drive and the only negative feedback came from the state GOP.

He acknowledged that the volunteers weren’t doing anything for the inmates that they couldn’t do themselves by contacting the Secretary of State’s Office. But he still 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.

It doesn’t appear any candidates were being promoted, but the potential was there, Allen said.

“It’s too risky,” he said. “I’m not going to take the chance of having any staff members exposed to the possibility of being charged.”