Inmates can vote absentee despite ‘outdated’ forms

Published 3:00 am Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Pike County NAACP showed up at the Pike County Jail Saturday with lunch for the inmates and jailers – and voter registration forms.

Dianna Bascomb, president of the Pike County NAACP branch, said that it is crucial that all eligible voters are given the chance to register to vote and take part in the democratic process.

“We want to give everyone the opportunity, regardless of where they may be, to cast their votes unless the law prevents it,” Bascomb said.

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That process is not as simple though from inside a jail cell as it is on the outside.

Jamie Scarbrough, absentee election manager, said all inmates that have not been disqualified by being convicted of a “crime of moral turpitude” should be allowed to register to vote, but their ability to vote absentee from within the jail is less clear.

“There’s nowhere on the absentee ballot application that lists being incarcerated as a reason you can vote absentee,” Scarbrough said. “You have to be out of the county, have a physical impairment, a work conflict, a member of the armed forces or a student in another county.”

Regardless of there being nowhere to mark it on an application, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said that inmates who have not been disqualified can certainly vote absentee from jail.

“Anybody that is incarcerated that has not been convicted of a disqualifying felony is still eligible to vote,” Merrill said. “They obviously cannot vote in person, so they would have to vote absentee. As long as they are not convicted of a disqualifying felony, they have a right to cast a ballot for the candidate of their choice.”

Scarbrough said that she her job is to simply process the absentee ballot application and, if filled out correctly, supply the absentee ballot. She would not be verifying the eligible voter’s reasoning for voting absentee.

Merrill said the only repercussion against an inmate marking a false rationale on the absentee ballot application would be a lawsuit from someone against the voting inmate.

“I don’t think anyone is going to sue anyone that is incarcerated that is trying to exercise their right to vote,” Merrill said. “We don’t want anybody to be disenfranchised that has the right to vote.”

Scarbrough said there are criminal charges that could be pressed if the absentee ballot application was deemed to be falsified, potentially including the checking of an invalid reason for voting absentee. Falsifying an absentee ballot application or encouraging someone to do so is a Class C Felony.

District Attorney Tom Anderson said inmates voting absentee would not likely be punishable since the law does allow them to vote.

“I’m willing to bet the law would allow it,” Anderson said. “I think the argument would be that the form didn’t comply with the law. They obviously haven’t updated the form … If I were them, I would write ‘incarcerated’ on the application because you’ve got to do something.”

Merrill said there have been attempts to change the absentee ballot applications in recent legislative sessions and said the issue will be brought forward again in the 2019 legislative session.

“The questions on the absentee application have long been antiquated and out of date,” Merrill said. “If someone is incarcerated, we know where they are and know why they can’t get to the polls. We’ve worked on changing the absentee application the last two sessions to make sure it is usable, workable and meaningful, which it is not currently.”

Sheriff Russell Thomas said the voter registration forms brought to the jail Saturday will not be distributed to the inmates as originally planned by the sheriff.

Instead, Thomas has notified the NAACP that they can mail the forms to each inmate on the roster and then the inmates can forward the forms to the Pike County Board of Registrars, who will be able to then determine whether each inmate is eligible to vote.

Bascomb said she is glad to have found a solution that will work under the law.

“When I set out to do something, my first priority is to reach out to the responsible party in any organization to ensure that we’re synchronized and know what each other are doing,” Bascomb said. “We want to coordinate all our efforts with the appropriate agencies.”