Groups sue Bowen over inmate voting rights

Three groups sued California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and San Francisco’s elections director Wednesday, asking the court to ensure that more than 85,000 people sent to county jails instead of state prisons under the recent “realignment” can vote.

All of Us or None, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and the League of Women Voters of California contend that low-level, non-violent offenders should be able to cast ballots this year and beyond.

The state’s First District Court of Appeal ruled in 2006 that people serving county jail terms as a condition of felony probation are entitled to vote under California law. Bowen in December issued a memo to county clerks and registrars advising them that no felon sentenced to county jail instead of state prison under realignment is eligible to vote. The state Justice Department backed Bowen up in a letter issued Monday.

This new lawsuit, also filed to the First District appellate court, argues people sent to county jail under realignment are neither “imprisoned in state prison” or “on parole as a result of the conviction of a felony” – the statuses under which the state constitution would deprive them of voting rights, under the 2006 case.

Excluding Californians with criminal convictions from voting is at odds with the California Constitution and contradicts a central purpose of realignment, which is to stop the state’s expensive revolving door of incarceration by rehabilitating and reintegrating individuals back into society, the lawsuit argues. The plaintiffs seek a court order letting such people register for November’s election before the Oct. 22 deadline.

Bowen’s spokeswoman said the office won’t comment on pending litigation.

The three organizations are represented by lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the Social Justice Law Project, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, A New Way of Life Reentry Project, and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.

“California’s courts have a proud tradition of protecting our fundamental right to vote,” ACLU Managing Attorney Jory Steele said in a news release. “Here, this is particularly important because disenfranchisement has such a disproportionate impact on people of color.”

Willie “Sundiata” Tate, 67, San Leandro was behind bars from when he was 16 until age 30; now he’s a volunteer community organizer with All of Us or None, and believes that its especially important for society’s less powerful to have access to the voting booth.

“If all of us were to get out and be active, it would and could make a difference, from the community level to a society level,” he said. “As a formerly incarcerated person, it’s very dear to me that everyone who has been locked down has the chance to help put in place policies that can have a positive impact on lives of people who are incarcerated, and on people who are vulnerable to incarceration.

People risked and lost their lives so African-Americans could have the right to vote, he noted.

“Especially on issues that are local and important in the state that I live in, I want that vote,” Tate said. “And I want that vote for everyone, not just for myself.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Elwood

    Well, isn’t that special?

    Only in Crazyfornia, the land of fruits and nuts.

  • RR senile columnist

    Is this a hoax for 1April?

  • John W.

    Hard to believe voting is a priority for people serving time. We can’t even get regular registered voters to bother.

  • RR, Senile Columnist

    I’ve re-read the article and, with a few changes, I think it would be suitable for The Onion.

  • Thank you for your coverage of this suit. The League of Women Voters of California has additional information (press release, petition for write of mandate and appendix of exhibits) on our site, if anyone would like to view these details. http://ca.lwv.org/lwvc/publications/pr/index.html

  • Sean Morham

    Can they apply for CCW permits as well?

  • Elwood

    @ #7 Sean

    Seems only fair.

  • Publius

    “people who are vulnerable to incarceration”

    Commit a crime and do the time.Only in California can a simple axiom like this be twisted in a such a way that makes the criminal the victim of his own crime. Besides,the Dems already have superior voting numbers in California, they don’t need anymore.

  • Aurther MacAurther

    To comment #1,#3 and #4 – your comment omits any reference to the subject which prompted your ridicule.

    I can agree with any comment which ridicules the absurd practice of disenfranchisement. Of course, there are plenty of states beside Crazyfornia with laws that violate the principle of universal suffrage.

    To comment#5 – you have misapplied the term “liberal” as a label to describe the plaintiffs or their attorneys. Preservation of universal suffrage is a conservative goal.

    Anyone supporting a position which seeks to deny any adult the exercise of their vote is antidemocratic.

  • Aurther MacAurther

    Anyone seeking election to the legislature of the state or the legislature of the nation or any state or national office should not be considered completely qualified if they have never even once been arrested and jailed.

  • RR, Senile Columnist

    Re 3: gotta agree with John W. Never heard a guard mention or ex-inmate complain about suffrage. Inmates have a long list of grievances– lousy food, getting aspirin for everything except life-threatening illnesses, endless boredom–but not taking part in politics doesn’t rank very high, if at all. A few sheriffs get a mention, but that’s it.