Constance Todd, 70 years old and a diligent voter in elections local and national, did not know what to make of the letter she got from the local registrar this month. “You have been convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude,” it read, apparently referring to a conviction for a series of bad checks from 20 years ago, “which disqualifies you from voting under Amendment 579 of the Constitution of Alabama.” A puzzled Ms. Todd gathered the official documents she keeps on hand, including the photo ID she had been required to obtain for voting in Alabama, and called her son, Timothy Lanier. He knew exactly what this was about. He knew, from a similar letter he had received himself. He also knew from his long days at the prison library learning about state laws by poring over the State Constitution. And, as it just so happened, Mr. Lanier is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed on Monday in federal court in Alabama, claiming that the state law stripping the vote from any person “convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude” — a law that has left more than 250,000 adults in the state ineligible to vote — is racially discriminatory, indefensibly vague and flagrantly unconstitutional.
Such a law, the suit alleges, is racist in its origins and is biased in its effect, disenfranchising roughly 15 percent of Alabama’s black voting age population, compared with fewer than 5 percent of whites. The suit argues that bias lies in the crimes generally chosen as involving moral turpitude — there are multiple interpretations of the crimes in that category — and in the requirement that fines and restitution be paid before the right to vote can be granted again, a condition that falls harder on the poor.
As the country’s incarceration rate grew over the past three decades, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit group, laws like the one in Alabama left nearly six million people ineligible to vote by 2010. But over the past 15 years, said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, there has been a broad and largely successful movement against these laws.
“The vast majority of the reforms that have taken place have been toward expanding the electorate, cutting back on longstanding categories of disenfranchisement and/or making the process more transparent,” Mr. Mauer said, speaking of recent activity along these lines in California, Maryland and Virginia.