In a week that marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Secretary of State Alex Padilla dropped California’s appeal of Michael Scott v. Debra Bowen, and that is worthy of note.
Padilla’s action is not on a par with the landmark legislation signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. But because of his decision, a needless barrier to voting is gone.
At Gov. Jerry Brown’s prodding, California lawmakers in 2011 approved criminal justice realignment legislation, which helped empty prisons of tens of thousands of lower-level offenders.
The policy shift was in part intended to help convicts reintegrate into civil society by giving them more drug treatment, mental health care, schooling and job training. Until Padilla’s action, however, they didn’t have the most fundamental right in a democracy: the power of the vote.
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The legal issue involved the meaning of the word “parole” and the reach of a state constitutional provision that says: “The Legislature shall prohibit improper practices that affect elections and shall provide for the disqualification of electors while mentally incompetent or imprisoned or on parole for the conviction of a felony.”
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, tried to push legislation to grant the right to vote to convicts who avoided state prison because of realignment. She dropped the bill in 2013, rather than risk a “no” vote.
For all legislators’ palaver about empowering disenfranchised people, the notion of giving some criminals the right to vote might have been a little too much. Debra Bowen, then the secretary of state, took a cautious approach, too, concluding that offenders who were on mandatory supervision under realignment were essentially on parole, and could not vote.
In 2014, however, Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo of Alameda County, ruling in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, concluded that people who were beneficiaries of realignment were not on parole.
“Conversely,” he wrote in a thoughtful decision, “the plain language of the statute suggests that the integration of adult felons into society would be facilitated by allowing persons under Mandatory Supervision or Post-Release Community Service to vote, thus giving full effect to one of the Legislature’s stated goals.”
By dropping the appeal of Grillo’s ruling, Padilla sided with the ACLU. His action affects about 50,000 people. One is Sharron Bolden. Because of realignment, she avoided prison for her most recent crime, drug sales, but is under mandatory supervision in San Diego County, where she lives.
At age 37, she has been able to vote once for president, in 2004, but because of past crimes she never got the chance to vote for Barack Obama. “That really bothered me,” she said in an interview with a Sacramento Bee editorial board member. Now, she preaches the importance of voting to her niece who soon will turn 18.
“If the vote didn’t count, Obama wouldn’t be president,” she said. She also talked about laws that adversely affect African Americans, including the notion that sentences for crack are more serious than for cocaine use. “The black population is directly affected by the decisions by politicians.”
The ACLU counts 11 states that permanently revoke voting rights of some or all convicted felons. Maine and Vermont, at the opposite end, permit people in prison to vote. In California, people in prison and felons on parole can’t vote. Padilla’s action won’t alter that.
But one barrier to suffrage has fallen. Criminals live on the outskirts of society. Now, thanks to the ACLU’s suit and Padilla’s action, citizens who have a history will have the right to step into the public square and be heard, if they care.