President Trump’s sham “Presidential Commission on Election Integrity”—which has received nearly universal opposition from voting rights advocates and state officials—follows the same template that conservative, regressive politicians have followed since the end of the Civil War to undermine American democracy. They seek to manipulate the language of liberty to conceal their true intentions and skew the electoral process in their favor, more often than not facilitating racial oppression in the process.
The same day the “integrity commission” sent out its letter demanding states provide the names, Social Security numbers, and political affiliation of registered voters, the Justice Department issued a letter to many states asking about their compliance with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. Normally, the DOJ issues this type of letter in accordance with a specific investigation into one state’s voting practices, but this one was sent out widely, leading many voting rights advocates to fear a new national voter suppression agenda.
We still haven’t overcome the old suppression agenda. In Alabama, a battle over the definition of “moral turpitude” shows America remains mired in voting-rights battles from the turn of the last century.
Since 1901, residents of Alabama have been barred from voting if they had committed a “crime involving moral turpitude” as stated in Article VIII, Section 182 of Alabama’s Constitution. That constitution is an outrageous and dangerous document that was created that year with the explicit purpose of sustaining white supremacy and oppressing African Americans. Black voter turnout dropped a whopping 96 percent as a result of its passage.
Because Alabama’s constitution never defined “moral turpitude,” its meaning has largely been left to the whims of state election officials who’ve used it to stop black citizens from voting for misdemeanors like cashing a bad check.
In 1985, the Supreme Court in Hunter v. Underwood found in a unanimous decision that the moral turpitude provision was unconstitutional and in violation of the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment. The Court even concluded that the basis of this section, and in fact Alabama’s 1901 constitution, was “to establish white supremacy in this State.”
Alabama responded by tweaking its constitution so that “moral turpitude” only pertained to felonies, while still not defining the term. In 2016, over 250,000 Alabama residents—including a stunning 15 percent of the black voting population—have been barred from voting by this provision.
This May, new Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law HB282, which finally defines “moral turpitude” as 50 specific felonious acts—a shift that could enfranchise tens of thousands of Alabamians. This is hardly seismic progressive change in the deep South, though. Crimes more commonly affiliated with low-income communities such as robbery, theft, and burglary make the list, while white collar crimes like corruption, and embezzlement are not. Former Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, who was forced to resign his office in disgrace to avoid impeachment and who pled guilty to two misdemeanors stemming from his use of state money to pay for his mistress’s legal fees, will still have the “moral turpitude” the state demands of its voters.
More, Secretary of State John Merrill, the Republican whose office oversees voter registration in the state, has done nothing at all to inform citizens about the change to the law, and is fighting a lawsuit demanding he do just that. Significantly, the special election to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ vacated Senate seat has been moved ahead to Aug. 15 from Dec. 12, and the last day to register is July 15. In a responsible democratic system that values the right to vote, one would expect a considerable statewide initiative to inform and re-enfranchise voters, but Alabama is doing no such thing.
People who imagine that Trump represents an aberration in American democracy should look to Alabama, where we’ve been fighting this battle for over a century, and where the forces of racially biased voter suppression are still fighting to keep the upper hand.