Voting is a fundamental right, enshrined in the Constitution and buttressed by historic state and federal laws after civil rights battles that continue today. Anyone concerned about voting rights must be heartened by recent court decisions overturning restrictive, discriminatory voting laws in other states. But we shouldn't ignore a threat to voting rights here at home -- a threat that is remedied by a bill currently in the legislature.
In 1974, California voters amended the state Constitution to end permanent disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions. The voters' will was clear; only people convicted of the most serious offenses are deprived of the right to vote, and that right is reinstated once their sentence is completed.
The League of Women Voters campaigned for that amendment because we knew that people who vote and participate in community life are more invested in turning their lives around and being productive citizens. A policy of lifelong disenfranchisement does nothing to keep our neighborhoods safer. We also recognized that the burden of felony conviction, and therefore disenfranchisement, fell disproportionately on people of color.
Today, the right to vote in California does not hinge on whether one is serving a sentence for a felony conviction. Instead, that right is only temporarily denied to those serving a sentence for serious felonies. Unfortunately, some former secretaries of state scorned the will of the voters and attempted to restrict the right to vote. This occurred most recently in 2011, when the former secretary stripped the right to vote from people convicted of low-level, nonviolent felony offenses serving sentences in county jails or living in their communities under local supervision. In 2014, the League and a large coalition of allies won a court ruling reaffirming the voting rights of people sentenced to local supervision and, with the support of the current secretary of state, more than 50,000 people have had their voting rights restored.
We are proud cosponsors of AB 2466 (Weber), which will ensure a single statewide rule on voter eligibility and end recurrent litigation over the constitutional term "imprisoned." The bill will codify the court decision and make it clear that those convicted of low level felonies in county jails do not lose their constitutional right to vote.
Unfortunately, some law enforcement interest groups oppose the bill, ignoring the fact that thousands of Californians serving sentences for felony convictions are already allowed to vote. Their objection is not couched in terms of public safety or burden on law enforcement. We rightly entrust our police with great powers to preserve order and help prosecute those who commit crimes. But after their job on the streets is done, should cops be involved in deciding who can--and cannot--participate in our democracy?
Attorney General Kamala Harris, the state's chief law enforcement official, and Secretary of State Alex Padilla, our chief elections official, support AB 2466, along with local elections officials and more than 50 respected state and national organizations.
They recognize the harmful impact of restrictive felony disenfranchisement laws not just on entire communities of color, but also on the very integrity of our democracy. This is consistent with the growing national movement to restore voting rights to people impacted by a criminal justice system tainted by systemic racism.
Civic engagement is a critical component of re-entry that can reduce recidivism and make our communities safer. Depriving people convicted of a crime--a disproportionate number of whom are people of color--of the right to vote is simply a back door means of stripping voting rights from people of color. California must reject this most insidious form of voter suppression.
Helen L. Hutchison of Oakland is president of the League of Women Voters of California. She wrote this for the Mercury News.