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.”