Capitol Alert

Thousands of California felons keep right to vote after Padilla announcement

Secretary of State Alex Padilla
Secretary of State Alex Padilla Sacramento Bee file

Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced Tuesday he won’t appeal a voting rights decision against the state, guaranteeing the vote for tens of thousands of felons.

The decision affects people who have left prison and are now in county-run programs created by the state’s criminal justice realignment law, which sought to reduce California’s prison population. The county programs don’t include people with convictions for violent crimes, along with others whose crimes are considered more serious under California law, including sexual offenders.

Under the California Constitution, people in prison or on parole for a felony cannot vote. Former secretary of state Debra Bowen’s policy classified felons released into the new programs the same way as state parolees, meaning they could not participate in elections.

The ACLU, along with other civil rights groups and the League of Women Voters, sued Bowen last year. They argued the Legislature had created the community supervision categories as an alternative to parole for low-level offenders, and that people in the programs shouldn’t be classified the same was as state parolees. Although an Alameda Superior Court judge ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor in May 2014, an appeal was still possible.

On Tuesday, Padilla said he’s not taking that option, noting that he didn't agree with Bowen's policy in the first place. “If we are serious about slowing the revolving door at our jails and prisons, and serious about reducing recidivism, we need to engage – not shun – former offenders,” Padilla said, according to his prepared remarks. “Voting is a key part of that engagement; it is part of a process of becoming vested and having a stake in the community.”

Anna Castro, a spokeswoman for the ACLU, said in a statement that Padilla’s decision “sends the nation a message that California will not stand for discrimination in voting and that he will fight to protect the right to vote for all eligible Californians.”

Harriet Salarno, chair of Crime Victims United of California, said Padilla made the wrong move.

“With (the felons) voting and with some of the things that we have on the ballot – that will harm us on public safety,” she said.