Important Voting Rights Bill Clears Assembly Elections Committee

letpeoplevoteSACRAMENTO – A bill that would uphold the constitutional right to vote for people sentenced under realignment was approved today by the California Assembly’s Elections and Redistricting Committee.

The bill, A.B. 938, would make clear that all people in county custody retain their right to vote.

“In my latest campaign, many community members mistakenly believed that they couldn’t take part in the electoral process because they’d been convicted of a felony,” said Assemblymember Dr. Shirley N. Weber (D-San Diego), the author of the bill. “A.B. 938 will help clear up this kind of confusion which discourages voting.”

Under current state law, Californians convicted of a felony temporarily lose the right to vote if they are incarcerated in state prison or supervised by state parole. But Secretary of State Debra Bowen, in the absence of guidance from the legislature, has wrongly deemed that a person sentenced to a term in county jail and/or supervised by probation under realignment is ineligible to vote. This has resulted in substantial confusion for California voters, courts and county elections officials.

“California has among the lowest voter registration rates in the country, and the secretary of state would take us backwards by barring more people from the polls,” said Weber. “A.B. 938 provides our state an important opportunity to protect access to the franchise. This is a fundamentally American issue: ‘No taxation without representation.’ Civic participation is also a critical part of healthy and safe communities.”

This bill makes two important clarifications in the law. First, it clarifies that only people in state prison or on state parole are ineligible to vote due to a criminal conviction. Secondly, it clarifies the information that courts send to elections officials to ensure that eligible voters are not erroneously removed from the voting rolls.

“After the 15th Amendment extended the right to vote to former slaves, a variety of Jim Crow laws were passed to put up barriers to registration and voting,” said Trudy Schafer of the California League of Women Voters, one of the sponsors of the bill. “Among those Jim Crow laws were those that deprived people convicted of a crime of their right to vote. Now it’s 2013 and once again thousands of Californians have been stripped of their voting rights through a mistaken and misguided interpretation of the state constitution. The secretary of state’s determination that thousands of people sentenced for low-level felonies cannot exercise their fundamental right to vote disproportionately impacts the same communities that Jim Crow laws worked so hard to disenfranchise.”

The bill, which now moves to the Assembly for full consideration later this month, is also sponsored by the ACLU of California, the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights, the Greenlining Institute and All of Us or None.