DOTHAN, Ala. — The Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, onetime criminal and founder of a ministry called The Ordinary People Society, spent years helping people with criminal records regain the right to vote in Alabama, where an estimated 250,000 people are prohibited from voting because of past criminal activity.
Then he discovered that many of them had never actually lost the right.
Because of a quirk in its Constitution, Alabama disqualifies from voting only those who have committed a “felony involving moral turpitude.” Those who have committed other felonies — like marijuana possession or drunken driving — can cast ballots even if they are still in prison, according to the state attorney general.
But it has been slow work cajoling public officials to enforce and publicize the law. Until Friday, the secretary of state’s Web site advised, incorrectly, that those with any kind of felony conviction could not register unless they had served their time and their right to vote had been restored by the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Because neither the Legislature nor the attorney general has offered a definitive list of crimes involving moral turpitude, there is no way of knowing how many inmates are eligible to vote. But state agencies generally agree that those convicted of drug possession — at least 3,000 of Alabama’s 29,000 prison inmates and thousands more on probation — are eligible. Most felons and former felons, however, assume that they have lost the right to vote.
“This is an issue that’s never come up before,” said Richard F. Allen, the commissioner of corrections. “I would think that if there were any latent feeling out there that they wanted to vote, they would have expressed it by now.”
Mr. Glasgow, who is the half-brother of a far less obscure crusader based in New York, the Rev. Al Sharpton, believes that not only do inmates and former convicts want to vote, but also that their ballots could alter the political landscape in this Republican-leaning state, adding that his group has registered more than 500 people by visiting a handful of county jails.
“There would be a lot of difference in our legislators, our elected officials and our presidents that we’ve had,” he said. “It would definitely change the political spectrum of Alabama.”
Republicans agree. They railed against a statute passed in 2003 that made it easier for some former felons to regain their voting rights by side-stepping a lengthy and backlogged pardon process.
“There’s no more anti-Republican bill than this,” said Marty Connors, the chairman of the state Republican Party, according to news reports at the time. “As frank as I can be, we’re opposed to it because felons don’t tend to vote Republican.”