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California Lawsuit Challenges Voting Prohibition on County-level Offenders

On March 7, 2012, the League of Women Voters, two prisoners’ rights organizations and a female prisoner filed suit against California election officials, alleging that offenders in county jails or on county supervision were being improperly disenfranchised.

In an attempt to ease severe overcrowding in California’s prison system, the state legislature passed a “realignment” initiative in October 2011. As part of the initiative, low-level convicted offenders are held in county facilities rather than state prisons. The realignment plan also replaced parole with a similar program called “post-release community supervision” for prisoners released under county supervision.

California, along with 48 other states and the District of Columbia, prohibits incarcerated felons from voting. Only Maine and Vermont allow prisoners to vote.

Thirty-five states prohibit parolees from voting, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice advocacy group. Thirty of those states also bar probationers from voting. California allows county probationers to vote but not state parolees.

Following adoption of the realignment plan, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen issued an 18-page memo to election officials in December 2011 that stated offenders sentenced to county-level incarceration or supervision were ineligible to vote under California law.

The memo disenfranchised over 85,000 offenders who were no longer in state prison or on parole, and who otherwise would be eligible to vote.

The lawsuit was filed by All of Us or None, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, the League of Women Voters of California and Alisha Coleman, 30, who is serving time in a San Francisco jail on drug charges. The suit, filed in the First District Court of Appeal against Bowen and San Francisco Director of Elections John Arntz, challenged the Bowen memo and requested an order requiring election officials to allow offenders incarcerated or on supervision at the county level to vote.

The plaintiffs argued that felony offenders under county supervision pursuant to the realignment initiative are neither in state prison nor on parole, and thus “are not disenfranchised under the California Constitution.”

On May 17, 2012 the Court of Appeal issued a two-sentence order denying a motion by criminal justice scholars to submit an amicus brief, and “summarily denying the writ petition.” The plaintiffs filed a petition for review with the California Supreme Court on May 29, 2012, which remains pending. See: All of Us or None v. Bowen, Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division Three (CA), Case No. A134775.

The plaintiffs are represented by the ACLU of Northern California, the Social Justice Law Project, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, A New Way of Life Reentry Project, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and the Law Office of Robert Rubin.

Additional sources: Associated Press, Huffington Post,

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Related legal case

All of Us or None v. Bowen