The Alabama legislature could consider bills in the coming legislative session that could affect how Alabamians cast ballots and, for those released from prison, how they get their right to vote back.
One expected bill from Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, would streamline the process of restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals.
"We are very supportive of this," said Mike Nicholson, a policy analyst with Alabama Arise, an organization that pushes policies to support Alabamians living in poverty. "We supported this during the previous legislative session. In general, we are supportive of any policy that makes it easier for folks to get their right to vote back."
Coleman-Madison filed a similar bill last year. The legislation, which passed the Senate but did not move out of the House of Representatives, would have eliminated a requirement for released inmates to apply to the Board of Pardons and Paroles to regain the right to vote. Voting rights would be restored automatically after the board certified that the inmate was not convicted under a disqualifying felony and had paid fines or fees or complied with other requirements of a court.
"We are trying to make the process easier," Coleman-Madison said. "At the same time, I think this bill basically says, 'we want you to show good faith as well.' There is a process they have to go through to have their voting rights restored."
The 2023 legislative session begins March 7.
Voting rights advocates say Alabama makes it difficult for those convicted of crimes to get their right to vote back.
"It is very challenging because people don't know what the law is," said Nicole Porter, senior director of advocacy with the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit criminal justice reform organization based in Washington. "Many people assume they will never get their rights back if they have a felony conviction, and it is more complicated than that in Alabama."
In general, a person convicted of a crime of moral turpitude in Alabama loses their voting rights. Until 2017, Alabama did not define which crimes qualified as moral turpitude, leaving it up to registrars.
"What was happening across Alabama was that registrars had latitude, and sometimes they were working in collaboration with district attorneys in different counties, and they were defining, based on their own feelings, what was moral turpitude," said Kathy Jones, president of the Alabama League of Women Voters.
A bill passed that year set out 46 crimes that, upon conviction, would cost a person their right to vote. The law allowed people who had not been convicted of those crimes but stripped of their voting rights to register.
"The fact that offenses are specified in terms of who is eligible to vote in Alabama, makes the law very complicated there," Porter said.
Those sentenced to death or found guilty of treason cannot have their voting rights restored. Those convicted of any one of 12 felony offenses, including murder, sexual assault or sexual abuse, must first obtain a pardon from the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles before getting voting rights restored.
A person not convicted of those offenses can apply to the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles for a certificate of eligibility to register to vote. Once the applicant is approved, the person can then go to the local registrar's office to have their voting rights restored.
Applicants must pay all fines and fees before they can receive that certificate.
Coleman-Madison's bill would change this by requiring the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles to inform people who are eligible to have their voting rights restored.
Jones said Coleman-Madison's bill would be a good step in making rules about voting rights restoration clearer. Jones also said she wants to do away with the fines and fees requirement for people who have been convicted of a crime.
"You should not have to pay money, which is essentially a poll tax, to be able to vote," Jones said.
For some advocates, the bill is a matter of reaffirming a person's right to re-enter society.
"For anybody, I believe once you have paid your debt to society, once you have spent your time in prison and your sentence is over, there is not really a justifiable reason to continue punishing people," Nicholson said.
Advocates are also monitoring bills filed by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville.
SB 10, sponsored by Chambliss, would prohibit the use of voting machines that connect to the internet. SB 9 would require the use of paper ballots for all voting machines, to ensure a paper trail whenever someone votes.
"It seemed to me to be a proactive measure to go ahead and introduce those bills and try to get that put into law," Chambliss said.
The senator said he believes that Alabama's elections are secure.
"I think our elections are very safe, but that doesn't mean we just rest and don't do anything to make sure they continue to be safe," he said.
Mitchell Brown, a political science professor at Auburn University, said the bills would put Alabama's current voting system into law.
"My sense is that this bill doesn't do anything different than what is already in place in this state," he said. "My read of it is the intent to make sure that no Secretary (of State) could change it in the future without legislative approval or legislative change."
Jones said she was concerned the bill could affect people with a disability. Currently, people who are disabled may request assistance to complete a paper ballot.
Technology could be developed to make that easier, but Jones said the paper ballot requirement may prevent that option.
"It is a pre-emptive law," Jones said. "Right now, all of our ballots are done with paper. That is just how things are done here in Alabama. This law seems to prohibit having any alternative to a paper ballot for those who are disabled or incapacitated."
Brown agreed with Jones, but said Alabama tends to avoid exploring new voting technology.
"For sure this stifles innovation," Brown said. "With that said, Alabama isn't likely to be a state that was going to be a leader in the field of ballot experimenting, with new and different types of voting equipment in the voting system."
Read more at AlabamaReflector.com.