By Samira Jafari
The Associated Press
Many state prisoners convicted of drug and alcohol felonies may be eligible to vote, even while incarcerated, though they probably don't know it.
The state Board of Pardons and Paroles announced Wednesday that under a 1996 amendment to the Alabama constitution, inmates convicted of DUIs or drug possession alone never lose their voting rights -- despite the common belief that felons are prohibited from casting ballots.
"Everybody thought anyone convicted of a felony lost the right to vote," said Cynthia Dillard, assistant director for the pardons and paroles board.
Dillard said the parole board looked into the issue after hearing about a Pell City prosecutor trying to charge an inmate who attempted to vote in last November's elections. The board received a March 18 advisory opinion from Attorney General Troy King, who said only those felonies involving "moral turpitude" -- meaning the crimes are inherently immoral -- disqualify a convict from voting.
The finding caught state voting officials off guard, prompting a request by Secretary of State Nancy Worley to King seeking a comprehensive list of crimes that forfeit voting rights and those that don't.
"A uniform listing of felonies involving moral turpitude should be established, distributed and publicly posted in order to avoid different interpretations in each county," Worley said in a statement Wednesday.
A spokeswoman for King said Wednesday the request was being researched, but would not elaborate.
Voting officials also were trying to determine whether any names were improperly removed from the state list of registered voters.
Prison system and voting officials were uncertain how many inmates would be affected. More than 2,250 inmates were in prison for drug possession and about 640 were serving time for felony DUI as their most serious offenses, according to Dec. 31, 2004 figures by the Alabama Sentencing Commission.
It's unclear how many of those inmates were registered to vote and the prison system has not encountered any prisoners trying to vote, said DOC spokesman Brian Corbett.
He said if some inmates are eligible to vote, they likely would have to petition the circuit clerks in their home counties for absentee ballots.
The voting amendment states that inmates convicted of a crime of moral turpitude are ineligible to vote unless their right is restored, typically by a certificate from the pardons and paroles board. DUI and drug possession are prohibited by law, but not necessarily immoral, according to King's opinion.
"This is atypical," said Marc Mauer, who has researched felon voting laws for The Sentencing Project.
"In 48 states, generally all people in prison are not eligible to vote," he said.
Maine and Vermont are the only two states that don't revoke voting rights upon conviction.
Alabama also is one of 15 states that doesn't automatically restore voting eligibility upon release from prison, Mauer said.
Dillard said the parole board looked into the issue after hearing about a Pell City prosecutor trying to charge an inmate who attempted to vote in last November's elections.
That prosecutor must not have any real criminals to chase down. Of all the shit to try and prosecute someone for.
I did not know that people with drug convictions could vote from prison in Alabama. I have always been told that people convicted of any felony drug crime lost their right to vote.
This bodes very well for me as the people in prison on drug charges are the ones I can almost count on, hands down, to vote for me in next years gubernatorial election.