By Paige St. John
California election officials are reversing a policy that prevents 45,000 felons from casting ballots, placing the state in the forefront of a movement to boost voting rights for ex-criminals.
California has until now maintained that state law prohibits felons from voting not only when they are in prison or on parole but also when they are under community supervision.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla said Tuesday that the state would now back voting rights for felons on community supervision, which is generally overseen by county probation departments.
The shift affects a growing number of felons because under the state's effort to reduce prison and jail crowding, the vast majority of nonviolent offenders are being released into community supervision programs.
Padilla said the decision was "compelled by conscience."
"It is not lost on me that persons of color are disproportionately represented in our correctional institutions and that undeniable disparities exist," he added.
Restoring voting rights to felons has become closely tied to nationwide efforts to reform the criminal justice system.
"These restrictions are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive," former Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a speech to a civil rights group in February. "By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes."
Some conservatives have also joined the fight, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that 4.4 million Americans not currently incarcerated cannot vote because of past criminal convictions.
The California decision settles a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups over whether this class of felons can vote.
To ease prison overcrowding, California lawmakers in 2011 passed laws that require lower-level felons to serve their time in jails or under county supervision instead of state lockups and parole. Padilla's predecessor, Debra Bowen, had instructed county election supervisors to extend the state's felon voting ban to those offenders. She cited a staff opinion that voting restrictions don't change just because post-prison release "is labeled something other than 'parole.'"
An Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled in May 2014 that more than just the name had changed -- that California's prison realignment law created a new class of offender. Padilla inherited Bowen's appeal of that ruling when he took office in January.
The settlement decree requires Padilla's office to give new directions to county election officials, and to "use his best efforts" to make sure new voter-education materials reach county probation offices overseeing community supervisions.
He also agreed to support a state payment of $215,000 to the civil rights groups that filed the lawsuit.
The settlement won applause from advocates of the national trend toward more-lenient sentencing laws and community rehabilitation. In the last few years, California voters have approved ballot measures that relaxed "three strikes" sentencing laws and reduced penalties for drug possession and other nonviolent crimes.
One felon who might soon get to vote is Sharron Bolden, a 37-year-old San Diego woman two-thirds of the way through a three-year community supervision sentence for selling drugs.
"Today was a celebration for me," she said. "I will be a part of history."
"It is absolutely important, especially because as an African American woman, I am scared that [President] Obama is leaving," Bolden added. "I want to have a voice in what happens in this country next."
In other parts of the country, the debate over felon voting rights has been contentious.
After Florida purged felons from voter rolls before the 2000 presidential election under GOP Gov. Jeb Bush, the state's next governor, Charlie Crist -- also a Republican at the time -- decreed that the voting rights of nonviolent felons be restored automatically. His executive order was undone three years later by the next Republican governor.
Likewise, Iowa's GOP Gov. Terry Branstad has rescinded another governor's order that automatically restored voting rights to lower-level criminals. The ACLU has filed suit. A court hearing on the state's motion to dismiss the case is set for Thursday.
And in Maryland, a battle is ensuing as Democratic lawmakers mount a possible override vote in January of the Republican governor's veto of a law allowing paroled felons to vote.
The subtext in each case is that those whose rights hang in the balance are predominantly minorities, and apt to vote for Democratic candidates.
Yet advocates for the incarcerated as well as civil rights groups consider those battleground states to be outliers.
They note that 23 states have modified voting laws or adopted more lenient ones since 1997. Eighteen states this year debated legislation to relax restrictions further, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
"We think that is in response to perceptions in the public, and the media, that this is a social policy issue, and it became obvious it was impacting democracy," said Nicole D. Porter, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project.
Times staff writer Timothy Phelps in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
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