Civil rights groups say the state is illegally preventing thousands of ex-felons from voting, filing a lawsuit that targets new categories of former inmates created under the criminal justice reform known as realignment.
California election law is clear that ex-felons can’t vote while they’re on parole. But realignment created two new categories of low-level ex-felons who never get paroled, but instead are subject to probation or community supervision.
Secretary of State Debra Bowen directed local election officials to treat these low-level offenders the same as parolees — in other words, they can’t vote until their supervision is done.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, the ACLU says Bowen is misinterpreting both the spirit and letter of the law. Attorney Michael Risher says realignment was intended to help ex-offenders stay out of trouble and that voting rights are part of that.
“We want them to participate in civil society, to encourage them to fulfill their civic duty and vote,” says Risher. “We certainly don’t want to stand in the way of that, particularly when the law says that they have the right to vote.”
Until 1974, anyone convicted of a felony in California lost the right to vote forever. Voters changed that with a ballot measure allowing ex-felons to vote when they completed parole. Chapman Law School professor John Eastman says the creation of low-level felonies under realignment shouldn’t change that.
“People who have demonstrated that they’re challenging the civil order by becoming felons lose something in the process, both their liberty with incarceration and some of the rights of citizenship like voting,” says Eastman.
The secretary of state’s office said courts have rejected previous attempts to change the directive.
Ultimately, says Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson, it may come down to what the Legislature intended when it passed realignment.
“This is a real political thicket,” says Levinson, “and I think some of it will come down to kind of what is the spirit of what we’re trying to do here?
So far, the Legislature has declined to clarify its intent.