Bill would change how felons learn of loss of voter rights
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Feb 18, 2013 | 6724 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MONTGOMERY — A bill in the Alabama Legislature would make a small change to the way the state informs people who’ve been stricken from the voter rolls for criminal convictions -- a change that could have larger effects downstream.

Senate Bill 109 would change state law so that people with felony convictions are notified by normal U.S. mail, not certified mail, that they no longer have the right to vote.

The bill's sponsor says it could save the state thousands of dollars per year. But one local legislator says it sounds like an attempt to suppress the vote.

"I see no reason why you'd want to make that change," said Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston.

Most states deny voting rights to people convicted of certain kinds of felonies. Some restore that right to people after they complete their sentences; Alabama is among roughly a dozen states that keep felons off the voter rolls even after they've served their time. Ex-felons, as they're known, can usually petition to have their rights restored, though some crimes lead to a lifelong ban on voting.

State law requires local boards of registrars to notify convicted felons, via certified mail, of their intent to strike the felon's name from voter rolls. The notification is sent to the felon's "last known address," the law says.

Anyone who feels he has been stricken from the rolls unjustly can appeal in probate court, state law says. No felon can be taken off the rolls while an appeal to the conviction is pending.

One of the sponsors of SB 109, Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Opelika, said the state could save thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars by sending those notifications with a regular postage stamp, instead of certified mail.

When a letter is sent by certified mail, the recipient must sign for it, and the sender gets a receipt acknowledging it was delivered. Certified mail can be pricey: according to the U.S. Postal Service website, the going rate is $3.10 per letter. "Forever" stamps sell for 46 cents.

Whatley said he's not sure why there's a need to send a letter at all.

"Why not just have the judge tell you, when you're going to prison, that you can't vote?" he said. "I'd rather use that money to put teachers to work."

Whatley said he filed the bill at the request of registrars, who felt the current system was wasting money.

Whatley said he didn't think the bill would adversely affect people who found themselves taken off the voter rolls mistakenly. Even if a voter doesn't get the letter from the registrar, voter rolls are printed in the newspaper before the election, he said.

"If you get to the polls and your name's not there, you can just file a contested ballot," Whatley said.

Incorrect purging of voter lists has happened before -- most notably in Florida in 2000, where the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that some voters were inaccurately listed as felons in state records. The commission also found that black voters were more likely to be erroneously purged than white or Hispanic voters.

Boyd said the state has a reason to keep track of whether registrars' letters reached their addressees.

"Certified mail protects the sender as well as the recipient," she said, noting that the state will have proof it contacted people who were being removed from the rolls.

Democrats and African-American leaders have long criticized Alabama's approach to disenfranchising ex-felons. One group, the Sentencing Project, estimates that about 262,000 people in Alabama can't vote because of criminal convictions. About half of them are black.

Boyd said that if the bill passed, it would be another barrier to felons getting their rights restored.

"The process is already hard enough as it is," Boyd said.

Boyd said she didn't think the bill would pass the Senate and make it to the House, where she serves. Still, 19 of the Senate's 35 members are listed among the bill's sponsors.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on the bill Wednesday. Approval by the committee would send it on to the full Senate for a vote.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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