When Kenneth Glasgow was released from prison after serving 14 years on drug-related charges, he was told that he couldn’t vote. So three years later, when he was granted a partial pardon that restored his right to vote, he attached a string to his voter registration card and wore it around his neck for four months.
Friends and family laughed at him. “People were asking me, including my mother: What are you doing? Why are you wearing that?” he said. They wondered why, after he was tagged a convict for almost half his life behind bars, would he want to continue tagging himself so publicly?
“I said: It proves that I’m a citizen,” he told ThinkProgress. “The only thing that gives you full citizenship is your right to vote.”
Citizenship is something Glasgow does not take for granted. When he was released from prison in 2001 at the age of 36, he had recently become ordained and was eager to start his life anew. Growing up, he had watched his half-brother Al Sharpton lead civil rights marches and protests and eventually launch a national voter advocacy organization, and Glasgow looked forward to following in his footsteps. He wanted to grow his ministry and similarly help black citizens fight for equal rights under the law.
When we was told he couldn’t vote because of his felony conviction, it felt like the state was slamming the door on that new life.
“When they told me, I got angry,” he said. “I got so angry that I said okay, if I couldn’t vote, I’m gonna make sure everybody I know get their voting rights and are able to vote.”
For three years, while using his ministry to educate people about the importance of voting, Glasgow also fought the state of Alabama through the lengthy and complicated pardon process, eventually getting a partial pardon in 2004 that would allow him to vote.
Four years later, he learned that his struggle had been unnecessary. The state had made a mistake and misunderstood its own law.
“I should never have been stricken off the books at all,” he said.
As it turned out, Alabama had been disenfranchising felons using a century-old, discriminatory provision which states that “no person convicted of a felony of moral turpitude” should be permitted to vote. But the state had never officially defined what constituted such a crime, leaving it up to individual registrars to make that decision themselves.
Glasgow’s drug charge, he learned, was not necessarily a crime of “moral turpitude,” so he and thousands of other Alabama citizens had been wrongfully turned away from the polls for decades. After realizing the scope of the problem, Glasgow became one of the most prominent faces in the fight to get the state to explain what the vague phrase means.
This week, Gov. Kay Ivey (R) is expected to sign a bill which will do just that. Under the Definition of Moral Turpitude Act, which passed both chambers of the legislature with bipartisan support, less than 50 specific felonies will justify disenfranchisement. Thousands of people are expected to have their rights restored.
“It feels like we have got our freedom,” Glasgow said. “This is monumental.”
An effort to ‘establish white supremacy’
When the Alabama constitution was adopted in 1901, the disenfranchisement of those “convicted of a felony of moral turpitude” had less-than-veiled racial implications.
Though no official definition was given, crimes of “moral turpitude” were commonly understood as crimes more frequently committed by black citizens. According to the president of the all-white constitutional convention, the purpose of the disenfranchisement provision was to “establish white supremacy in this state.”
And that’s exactly what the law did. “It allowed registrars to deny the right to vote to black people and grant the right to vote to white people,” said Danielle Lang, the deputy director of voting rights for the Campaign Legal Center, which is currently challenging Alabama’s disenfranchisement law in court. For decades, unelected county registrars were given broad discretion to decide who they would block from the polls.
That arbitrary system was used until 1985, when the U.S. Supreme Courtattempted to roll back the racist wording. In a unanimous ruling, the court held that the “moral turpitude” language is intentionally discriminatory and violates the Equal Protection Clause. But it was short-lived victory — voter suppression efforts quickly surged back in Alabama.
Eleven years after the ruling, Alabama lawmakers inserted the same “moral turpitude” provision into a state disenfranchisement law. The law was different enough from the constitution to pass muster, but provided no new justification for the vague language.
“Until maybe this week, it has continued to function in a way that allows for arbitrariness and therefore allows for discrimination,” Lang said.
It’s hard to know how much arbitrariness actually exists in the system because the state has not responded to requests for data, but “we do know quite a bit from anecdotal evidence,” Lang said. One county could allow a person to vote with a conviction for drug possession with intent to distribute, but another county could decide to kick him or her off the rolls for the same crime.
In total, more than 250,000 citizens, most of them black, are denied the right to vote because of a felony conviction. Because of the state’s disenfranchisement law, fifteen percent of Alabama’s black residents are prohibited from voting. Although roughly a quarter of Alabama is black, the state has never elected a black candidate to statewide office.
Republican governors over the years have tried to use the vagueness of the “moral turpitude” clause to restrict even more voters. In 2008, former Gov. Bob Riley (R) decided to add hundreds of crimes, including misdemeanors like attempted arson, possession of burglary tools and flag burning to the list of crimes that bar a person from voting. Riley’s list included roughly 480 crimes, while the Administrative Office of the Courts kept the number at just 70, creating massive confusion.
The state has done nothing to address that confusion until this year. Years after it began considering legislation to define “moral turpitude,” the legislature finally passed the bill.
Secretary of State John Merrill (R), who has supported the legislation since he took office in 2015, told ThinkProgress he thought it was important to bring uniformity to the system.
“There has not been a consistent implementation of the law,” he said, although he wouldn’t go far as to say that it’s had discriminatory effects. “I doubt very seriously anything has been done intentionally to prevent people from participating in the electoral process.”
The bill on the governor’s desk this week would fix that problem, he said. Eileen Jones, press secretary for Governor Ivey, told ThinkProgress Tuesday that the governor was reviewing the legislation with her legal office. The Vera Institute of Justice reports she intends to sign it into law.
Glasgow said he sees no reason that she won’t sign it. It passed the Houseunanimously in March and the Senate unanimously last week — a stark contrast from just a few years ago when a number of Republican lawmakers aggressively fought Glasgow’s efforts to expand voting rights.
One of those Republicans, Glasgow noted, might regret his decision to oppose the bill.
Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard is currently serving a four-year prison sentence for 12 felony violations. A jury found him guilty last year of violating state ethics law by using his political office to make over $1 million in investments and income for his businesses.
“He was the biggest opposing factor to me when we were going around registering people inside prisons,” Glasgow said, laughing at the irony. “Now he will be a benefactor of the same bill and lawsuit that he fought me against because now he’s in prison.”
‘Step in the right direction’
Long before this law was on the table, Glasgow started a network to encourage other people in the South to travel to prisons like him and help inmates register to vote. Through his ministry, The Ordinary People Society, Glasgow has estimated that he has helped thousands of people register to vote.
At the same time, he has also advocated for legislative change. “Now that [we’ll] have a clear definition or moral turpitude, it will not only open the doors for people who have felony convictions to vote, but it’ll put Alabama back in the right frame and back in the moral standard of doing the right thing,” he said.
“People should look at this monumental action as something as close to freedom, as close as we can get in Alabama at this particular time, especially with the administration we have up there in Washington,” he said.
Voting advocates, however, are more hesitant to call the bill a success. Lang said it’s a “step in the right direction,” but not a solution to Alabama’s problematic felon disenfranchisement law.
“The fact that until this moment Alabama was arbitrarily denying people the fundamental right to vote based on the whims of registrars was truly appalling,” she said. “This will at least provide some clarity,” while the Campaign Legal Center continues to fight other aspects of the state’s disenfranchisement law in court, she added.
The law still imposes what can be considered a poll tax because former felons have to be able to afford to pay their fines and fees to restore their right to vote. “Wealth should not be a factor in deciding who can vote,” Lang said.
The list of felonies included in the bill also does not include things like public corruption and fraud, crimes which are “typically considered to be the crimes closely associated with voting eligibility,” she said. Unsurprisingly, those crimes generally have less of a racial slant than others.
Merrill, Alabama’s Republican secretary of state, was not accepting of arguments that the bill will not go far enough.
“If we had a stand in Anytown, U.S.A. and in that stand on Main Street we’re giving out ice cream,” he said. “Anybody can come. They can only get one cone and it’s vanilla. There’s going to be some people who are gonna cry because they can’t get but one scoop, and there’s gonna be some people who are gonna cry because we don’t have chocolate.”
“I don’t worry about the people who want two scoops and I don’t worry about the people who want a different flavor,” he said.
Voting, unlike receiving free ice cream, is a constitutional right.
But Merrill dismissed criticism of his analogy, saying that he has yet to hear from one person who is being discriminated against or denied access to the polls.
Through his ministry and travels to prisons across the state, Glasgow has met many. That’s why he’s so excited about the incremental change the new legislation will bring, and its potential to be a model for states across the South.
“It took a long time to get this done but its proof that it can be done, and we need it done everywhere,” he said.