Felons in County Jails Have a Right to Vote, Says ACLU and Others in New CA Lawsuit

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Prisoner Legal Services attorney bringing ballots to inmates at the San Francisco County Jail.
Source: “Ban on Felon Voting Goes Before 9th Circuit Tuesday,” www.publicbroadcasting.net, Sep. 20, 2010

Organizations supporting felon voting rights filed a lawsuit in northern California on Mar. 5, 2012 arguing that convicted felons serving time in county jails rather than prison should have their voting rights restored.

According to California law, people with misdemeanor convictions may vote while in jail or on probation. However, people with a felony conviction may not vote until they have served their prison sentence and completed parole.

Under Gov. Jerry Brown’s Criminal Justice Realignment Plan (CJRA) to reduce prison overcrowding many current inmates convicted of low-level felonies are being transferred from state prisons to county jails.

The lawsuit argues that felons who fall under the new realignment plan should be allowed to vote since they are technically no longer prisoners but jail inmates. The brief states that “the refusal to allow individuals convicted of low-level offenses not in the custody of CDCR [California Department of Corrections and Rehibilitation] to register violates their fundamental right to vote, as secured by the Constitution and the Elections Code.”

The ACLU of Northern California along with four other groups are representing the three plaintiff organizations All of Us or None, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and the League of Women Voters of California.

The lawsuit is in response to a Dec. 5, 2011 memo sent to county registrars by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen which instructed that felons “convicted of a CJRA-defined low-level felony and sentenced, on or after October 1, 2011, to a term of more than one year in county jail,” are ineligible to vote while in jail and that felons under supervised release may not vote “until the period of supervision ends.”

According to the lawsuit, 85,000 potential voters (30,500 inmates and 54,500 prisoners on supervised release) will be affected by the decision.

In the United States, only two states (Vermont and Maine) allow convicted felons to vote while in prison. 13 states have laws that permanently disenfranchise some people convicted of a felony.

Sources:

ACLU of Northern California, “Californians Sentenced Under Realignment Have the Right to Vote, Argue Civil Rights Advocates,” www.aclunc.org, Mar. 7, 2012

Bob Egelko, “Calif. Lawsuit Seeks to Restore Prisoner’s Votes,” www.sfgate.com, Mar. 8, 2012