Leonard Robinson was convicted of felony possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute by the state of Alabama more than 20 years ago. Although he doesn’t consider himself an activist, everyone who knows him understands that there is one subject that he is always passionate about. He works hard to spread the word that felons in Alabama can vote.
Robinson says that he has voted in every election since he turned 18, which is not unusual for a black man from Birmingham, Ala., where they take the vote seriously. However, when he tried to vote in the 2016 election, he was told that he couldn’t vote because of his felony.
That’s when Robinson discovered that tens of thousands of people in the state had been treated the same way. The state required that those convicted of a felony apply for the reinstatement of their right to vote. “It was really simple,” he told The Root. “You contacted the state, and they sent a letter to take to the polls with you if you have any trouble. They also had a number to call if you have any trouble. You don’t have to do this anymore, but very few people know about it.”
The Sentencing Project estimates that Alabama disenfranchised 286,266 voters in 2016, according to AL.com. The Alabama Constitution forbids anyone convicted of a “crime of moral turpitude” from voting, but the constitution didn’t exactly spell out what those crimes were. Many people who had been convicted of a felony in the state simply assumed that they weren’t eligible to vote and never applied for their voting rights to be reinstated, but now that has changed.
In May 2017, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the “Definition of Moral Turpitude Act,” which lists the 42 specific felonies that bar anyone from voting in the state. Now those with former felony convictions no longer have to guess about their disenfranchisement. But the state didn’t exactly tell the whole world about it.
“Most people don’t know about it,” Robinson said. “That’s why I tell everyone I see.
The number of people who aren’t aware of the new law isn’t limited to people with legal troubles in their past. Many Alabama Republicans have no idea that felons can vote, partly because of Roy Moore and the GOP’s efforts to rile up their base, suppress the facts and spread fake news. Conservative sites have sounded the alarm that George Soros and “radical leftists” are signing up felons to vote.
Since the civil rights era, almost every black civic, fraternal and nonprofit organization in the state of Alabama has made registering black and minority voters a priority. Alabama is one of the few states where African Americans register and vote more often than whites (xls), according to 2016 U.S. census numbers.
Ever since the state defined which felons couldn’t vote, Leonard and others have made it a point to reach out to the untapped reservoir of voters who sometimes still assume they can’t vote. Although the exact number of formerly convicted voters is unknown, efforts to inform and register those who believed that they were ineligible to vote has been a point of emphasis for many organizations committed to voter registration.
Republicans aren’t happy about it. The same people who dismiss the claims that Roy Moore trolled the local Hot Topic for his dates don’t think anyone with a criminal past should be allowed to cast a ballot. It became one of Moore’s dog whistles during his Senate run.
Alabama has seen a slight uptick in registered voters leading up to Tuesday’s Senate election, AL.com reports. The news site says that “thousands” of felons have registered.
If you ask anyone who knows Robinson, they will tell you how he injects himself into any conversation to spread the word about felons who can vote.
“If you were in the North Pole,” said one of Robinson’s friends, “If you whispered something about voting to a polar bear, I bet Leonard would pop up out of nowhere and say, ‘Felons can vote in Alabama.’”