Pastor Kenneth Glasgow
Last week, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law the Definition of Moral Turpitude Act, passed in the last legislative session, which will codify those crimes that meet the definition of moral turpitude and allow many former felons with lesser crimes the opportunity to have their voting rights restored.
Huffington Post estimates that as many as 250,000 people were disenfranchised because of the law. This includes about 15% of the state’s African-American voting age population and 5% of its white population.
Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, founder of The Ordinary People Society, a Dothan nonprofit advocacy group, said the law would have wide-reaching impacts on many felons across the state, including many incarcerated offenders who would regain the right to vote and therefore be eligible to vote via absentee ballot. Glasgow, who has been working to re-enfranchise many felons since shortly after he was released from prison in 2001, said the legislation would also restore voting rights for Alabamians who are charged with felonies but have not been convicted.
The Alabama Legislature passed this bill to codify the specific laws that could be considered ‘moral turpitude’ and prevent felons from restoring their right to vote. The bill lists fifty specific Alabama statutes, including Murder, Manslaughter, Kidnapping, Rape. Sodomy, Terrorism, Child Pornography and others that will permanently prevent former felons from regaining their rights. All other felons will be able to get their rights restored at the local voter registrars office or through a process of application to the Alabama Pardons and Parole Board.
Rev. Glasgow has been working for many years to get the basic citizenship rights of formerly incarcerated people restored. This legislation, which passed on unanimous votes in the Alabama House and Senate, make clears which felonies are of such magnitude as to limit a person’s citizenship rights. All other lower level felonies will not longer prevent someone from voting, even persons in jail, awaiting trial will be able to vote absentee.
Citizenship is something Glasgow does not take for granted. When he was released from prison in 2001 at the age of 36, he had recently become ordained and was eager to start his life anew. Growing up, he had watched his half-brother Al Sharpton lead civil rights marches and protests and eventually launch a national voter advocacy organization, and Glasgow looked forward to following in his footsteps. He wanted to grow his ministry and similarly help black citizens fight for equal rights under the law.
When we was told he couldn’t vote because of his felony conviction, it felt like the state was slamming the door on that new life. “When they told me, I got angry,” he said. “I got so angry that I said okay, if I couldn’t vote, I’m gonna make sure everybody I know get their voting rights and are able to vote.”
For three years, while using his ministry to educate people about the importance of voting, Glasgow also fought the state of Alabama through the lengthy and complicated pardon process, eventually getting a partial pardon in 2004 that would allow him to vote.
Four years later, he learned that his struggle had been unnecessary. The state had made a mistake and misunderstood its own law. “I should never have been stricken off the books at all,” he said.
As it turned out, Alabama had been disenfranchising felons using a century-old, discriminatory provision, which states “no person convicted of a felony of moral turpitude” should be permitted to vote. But the state had never officially defined what constituted such a crime, leaving it up to individual registrars to make that decision themselves.
Glasgow’s drug charge, he learned, was not necessarily a crime of “moral turpitude,” so he and thousands of other Alabama citizens had been wrongfully turned away from the polls for decades. After realizing the scope of the problem, Glasgow became one of the most prominent faces in the fight to get the state to explain what the vague phrase means.
When the Alabama constitution was adopted in 1901, the disenfranchisement of those “convicted of a felony of moral turpitude” had less-than-veiled racial implications.
Though no official definition was given, crimes of “moral turpitude” were commonly understood as crimes more frequently committed by black citizens. According to the president of the all-white constitutional convention, the purpose of the disenfranchisement provision was to “establish white supremacy in this state.”
And that’s exactly what the law did. “It allowed registrars to deny the right to vote to black people and grant the right to vote to white people,” said Danielle Lang, the deputy director of voting rights for the Campaign Legal Center, which is currently challenging Alabama’s disenfranchisement law in court. For decades, unelected county registrars were given broad discretion to decide who they would block from the polls.
That arbitrary system was used until 1985, when the U.S. Supreme Court attempted to roll back the racist wording. In a unanimous ruling, the court held that the “moral turpitude” language is intentionally discriminatory and violates the Equal Protection Clause. But it was short-lived victory — voter suppression efforts quickly surged back in Alabama.
Eleven years after the ruling, Alabama lawmakers inserted the same “moral turpitude” provision into a state disenfranchisement law. The law was different enough from the constitution to pass muster, but provided no new justification for the vague language.
“Until maybe this week, it has continued to function in a way that allows for arbitrariness and therefore allows for discrimination,” Lang said.
It’s hard to know how much arbitrariness actually exists in the system because the state has not responded to requests for data, but “we do know quite a bit from anecdotal evidence,” Lang said. One county could allow a person to vote with a conviction for drug possession with intent to distribute, but another county could decide to kick him or her off the rolls for the same crime.