SFGATE | Henry K. Lee
August 4, 2015
Tens of thousands of Californians who served sentences for nonviolent felonies will be allowed to vote after their release under an agreement announced Tuesday by the state’s top elections official, who reversed his predecessor’s policy.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla said he was dropping an appeal filed by fellow Democrat Debra Bowen, who was sued after declaring the former inmates ineligible to vote in December 2011. Bowen appealed a judge’s ruling last year in favor of the plaintiffs in the suit.
In dropping that appeal, Padilla, who took office in January, said he wanted to ensure that lower-level felons who were sent under Gov. Jerry Brown’s “realignment” program to county jail as a way to remedy state prison overpopulation retained their voting privileges.
At a news conference outside the Alameda County courthouse at the edge of Oakland’s Lake Merritt, Padilla said his decision was “one compelled by conscience.”
“It is not lost to me that persons of color are disproportionately represented in our correctional institutions and an undeniable disparity exists,” he said.
Padilla was flanked by inmate-advocacy groups, the chief probation officers of Alameda and Los Angeles counties, and one former offender who said she was excited to be able to cast her vote in next year’s elections.
“Before I was incarcerated, I exercised my right to vote,” said Sharron Bolden, 37, of San Diego. “I have always thought voting was important, because it can make a difference in my community.”
Judge Evelio Grillo of Alameda County Superior Court ruled last year that the state Legislature had approved the prison realignment act with the goal of reintegrating former inmates into society, including granting them the right to vote once they had finished their sentences. He said Bowen had illegally denied those ex-offenders their voting rights.
“The plain language of the statute suggests that the integration of adult felons into society would be facilitated by allowing” the ex-offenders to vote, Grillo wrote, adding, “California law requires this court to give every reasonable presumption in favor of the right of people to vote.”
Grillo issued his ruling in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the League of Women Voters, the inmate-advocacy group All of Us or None, and three former inmates. They said some 58,000 Californians had illegally been denied the right to vote.
Convicted felons in California were barred for life from voting until 1974, when voters amended the state Constitution to limit the ban to those who are “imprisoned or on parole” for a felony.
In a December 2011 memorandum to county registrars, Bowen had said that a fixed period of post-release supervision for anyone sentenced for a felony is the “functional equivalent of parole.”
But Grillo noted the felons in this case are not on parole under the supervision of state parole agents after their release, but rather are placed under the supervision of county probation officers.
Alameda County Chief Probation Officer LaDonna Harris said she supported Padilla’s decision to drop the state’s appeal of Grillo’s ruling.
“As a woman and a woman of color, people fought for me to be able to vote. So I agree and understand how important this legislation, this decision to not allow this appeal to stand, is,” she said. “Each of us should have a right to participate in … an election about how we live and who governs us.”
Los Angeles Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers said allowing these offenders to vote restores their dignity — and doesn’t affect safety. “They’re going to be better, more productive members of our society,” Powers said.