[Image courtesy of UCLA Digital Library]
California’s new Secretary of State Alex Padilla has already taken steps to reinvigorate the office with a series of high-profile pushes for major election changes like a Colorado-style “ballot delivery” or Oregon’s “new motor voter.” Yesterday, he made more headlines by announcing that his office will drop the appeal of a court ruling affecting the voting rights of thousands of Californians convicted of felonies but serving their sentences in county jails or under community supervision under a 2014 court-ordered “realignment”. The LA Times has more:
California election officials are reversing a policy that prevents 45,000 felons from casting ballots, placing the state in the forefront of a movement to boost voting rights for ex-criminals.
California has until now maintained that state law prohibits felons from voting not only when they are in prison or on parole but also when they are under community supervision.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla said Tuesday that the state would now back voting rights for felons on community supervision, which is generally overseen by county probation departments.
The shift affects a growing number of felons because under the state’s effort to reduce prison and jail crowding, the vast majority of nonviolent offenders are being released into community supervision programs.
This case has been working its way through the court system since 2012, with a judge restoring the rights of affected individuals in 2014. Yesterday’s announcement by Padilla was a shift in position from that of his predecessor, who had begun the process of appealing the decision:
To ease prison overcrowding, California lawmakers in 2011 passed laws that require lower-level felons to serve their time in jails or under county supervision instead of state lockups and parole. Padilla’s predecessor, Debra Bowen, had instructed county election supervisors to extend the state’s felon voting ban to those offenders. She cited a staff opinion that voting restrictions don’t change just because post-prison release “is labeled something other than ‘parole.’”
An Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled in May 2014 that more than just the name had changed — that California’s prison realignment law created a new class of offender. Padilla inherited Bowen’s appeal of that ruling when he took office in January.
The settlement decree requires Padilla’s office to give new directions to county election officials, and to “use his best efforts” to make sure new voter-education materials reach county probation offices overseeing community supervisions.
As more and more states use growing prison populations and evolving conceptions of public safety to consider alternative sentences like community supervision for some offenders convicted of felonies, California’s shift could have a ripple effect regarding the voting rights of these individuals across the nation – an issue that is still a flashpoint:
Iowa’s GOP Gov. Terry Branstad has rescinded another governor’s order that automatically restored voting rights to lower-level criminals. The ACLU has filed suit. A court hearing on the state’s motion to dismiss the case is set for Thursday.
And in Maryland, a battle is ensuing as Democratic lawmakers mount a possible override vote in January of the Republican governor’s veto of a law allowing paroled felons to vote.
The issue of race is a huge factor here – most of the individuals affected by California’s shift and nationwide are minorities – which also means that it is a deeply partisan issue as well. Consequently, while the fight may be over in California, it is likely to continue – and heat up – nationally as the 2016 election approaches.