The American Civil Liberties Union sued Alabama elections officials Monday over what it says is an overly expansive policy disenfranchising felons, amid concern from voting rights groups nationwide that voting lists are being culled with too great alacrity by many states.Like virtually all states, Alabama restricts the rights of many felons to vote, but in Monday's suit the group contends the state is going beyond even its own laws. People convicted of nonviolent offenses like income tax evasion or forgery are at risk of being turned away by voter registrars in Alabama, the A.C.L.U. says.
Alabama does not bar all felons from voting, only those convicted of crimes involving "moral turpitude." In 2003, the civil liberties group says, the State Legislature clearly defined what those crimes are: murder, rape, sodomy, sexual abuse, incest, sexual torture and nine other crimes mainly involving pornography and abuses against children.
At issue in the lawsuit is not the list enacted in law but an expanded "moral turpitude" list developed by the state's attorney general, Troy King, in 2005. That list includes about a dozen additional offenses, most of them nonviolent, and several including the sale of marijuana.
The A.C.L.U. contends that the attorney general's list violates the Alabama Constitution, saying only the Legislature can decide what crimes fit the "moral turpitude" category. Georgia, by contrast, bars those convicted of moral turpitude from voting but promulgates no list of crimes fitting that definition. A.C.L.U. officials say that results in a "blanket" policy of disenfranchisement.
Across the nation, about 5.3 million people cannot vote because of their convictions, according to a 2004 estimate by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research group supporting more liberal sentencing and voting policies. Voting rights groups are especially watchful this year because under a 2002 federal law, states are now coordinating lists to find felons and people who have died or moved, allowing easy - rights groups say too easy - purging of voters.
Although the A.C.L.U. is uncertain how many Alabama voters might run afoul of the attorney general's 2005 expansive definition, "we think it is a lot," said Laughlin McDonald, director of its Voting Rights Project.
State election officials appear to be going beyond even the attorney general's list. One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Annette McWashington Pruitt, a 48-year-old Birmingham resident, was turned away because of her 2003 conviction for receiving stolen property, her lawyers say.
The suit asks a state court judge to stop Alabama election officials from turning away any voter with a felony conviction not on the Legislature's moral turpitude list.
Felons with a moral turpitude conviction in Alabama can apply to the State Board of Pardons and Paroles to have their voting rights restored, but only after having paid all fines, court costs, fees and restitution. The civil liberties group is also trying to have that provision thrown out.
Neither the Alabama secretary of state's office, named as a defendant in the lawsuit, nor the Alabama attorney general's office would comment, saying they had not yet been served with the suit. In Birmingham, the Jefferson County registrar, Nell Hunter, also named in the suit, said, "We've put everybody back on."
"All of those that didn't involve moral turpitude were put back on," Ms. Hunter said.
Yet Ms. McWashington Pruitt's crime appears on neither the Legislature's nor the attorney general's list.
"This whole notion of moral turpitude is so vague and imprecise," Mr. McDonald said. "It's in the larger interest of the general public to rehabilitate people. It's one of the things that rehabilitates people, participating in the political process."
Ms. McWashington Pruitt said she had been astonished to be told she could not vote.
"I didn't think it was right," she said. "I didn't commit murder. I've voted all my life."
Ms. McWashington Pruitt said that she had a son serving in Iraq, and that her father had retired from the Air Force. "To me it's a God-given right, part of being an American," she said.
Elsewhere in the South, the voting rights group Project Vote has been expressing concern over what it sees as undue purging of voters in Louisiana, without notification, before this year's election.
A spokesman for Louisiana's secretary of state said that all voters found to have duplicate registrations were sent at least one warning letter and sometimes two, but that the last such actions were done some 13 months ago.
"We're specifically not doing it right in front of an election," said the spokesman, Jacques Berry.
© 2008 The New York Times