BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — On Aug. 23, in a major voting rights victory, an Alabama judge ruled that state and local election officials have improperly disfranchised eligible voters in violation of the state Constitution.

The court in Gooden v. Worley ordered the Alabama Secretary of State and Jefferson County Registrar to immediately “cease and desist in refusing voter registration” to individuals on the basis of a felony conviction.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) and Alabama attorney Edward Still filed Gooden v. Worley to challenge the unlawful denial of the right to vote to eligible voters with felony convictions — Alabama law only barred people whose felony convictions involved “moral turpitude,” which the statute did not define.

The Alabama Secretary of State, however, had effectively expanded the reach of the law by instructing voter registrars to refuse registration to all people with felony convictions.

“The court’s ruling recognizes that the fundamental right to vote ‘for which so many fought and died’ cannot turn upon the subjective whim of state and local officials,” said LDF assistant counsel Ryan Paul Haygood. “This victory strengthens the integrity of Alabama’s democratic processes.”

It was not until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that plaintiff Richard Gooden, like thousands of other African Americans, was permitted to register to vote. Until that time, Alabama relentlessly and systematically pursued efforts to deny voting and office holding to Blacks. Gooden was registered to vote from the mid-1960s until 2000, when he was convicted of felony DUI (driving while intoxicated), and informed by the State of Alabama that his voting rights were revoked.

The court concluded that the status quo prior to the ruling required “guesswork about what ‘moral turpitude’ actually means, all in violation of every citizen’s right to due process” and that “only the Legislature has the constitutional power to decide which crimes involve moral turpitude.”

“Given the fundamental nature of the right at stake … [and] until such time that there is a statute on the books specifying which crimes may properly serve as a basis of disenfranchisement, no defendant may take any action to interfere with a citizen’s registration because of any criminal conviction.”

The Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, state field director of the Alabama Alliance to Restore the Vote, praised the Court’s decision: “The court’s ruling protects the voting rights of the most vulnerable among us, particularly when those voting rights should not have been lost in the first place.”

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