Roy Moore, the accused serial sex predator leading in the polls in the Alabama Senate contest, surely knows that Alabama “felons” can’t vote and aren't being registered in great haste by Democrats eager to deprive him of his opportunity to bring his unique brand of lawlessness to the nation's capital. The Republican candidate knows that “felons” instead are still sitting in dank cells in the state's prisons, where mental health care is so deplorable six months ago a federal judge called it “horrendously inadequate.”
Moore knows also that some ex-felons, Alabama residents who have paid their debt to society and otherwise complied with their post-release obligations, finally won the right to vote in May, when the Rebublican governor signed a measure passed by the Republican legislature designed to undo at least part of the state's racist felony disenfranchisement laws. Roy Moore knew, in other words, that the Tweet he sent out the other night, this one:
BREAKING: Democrat operatives in Alabama are REGISTERING THOUSANDS OF FELONS all across the state in an effort to swing the US Senate election to Doug Jones! #ALSen https://t.co/tIaKPMJDPd
— Judge Roy Moore (@MooreSenate) November 29, 2017
was a lie calculated to serve as a racist dog whistle to voters whose support may be wavering. By using the word “felons,” Moore really meant “blacks” and the idea that his political enemies were enlisting these “felons” at the last minute to usurp the will of the good people of Alabama is a Southern trope that goes back generations. (Moore was able to spin his deceit, in part, because of some atrocious journalism by AL.com, which inaccurately called the ex-felons “felons” in both the headline and the body of a story). In any event, Moore's false Tweet now has been re-Tweeted 12,176 times as of this writing, by friend and foe alike no doubt, as it becomes part of the official narrative of this sorry senatorial race.
As a former chief justice (twice removed) of the state's supreme court, Moore surely knows what the new enfranchisement law actually does and does not do. As an avowed white supremacist, he also surely knows why the law was necessary and what racist obstacle it was designed to overcome. As its name implies, the 2017 Definition of Moral Turpitude Act refined the definition of crimes of “moral turpitude” to include some (like murder and kidnapping and the type of sexual assault of which Moore has been accused) and exclude others (like political corruption, white-collar crimes, and non-violent offenses).
The law was necessary because the phrase, crimes of “moral turpitude,” including misdemeanors, was enshrined in the state's constitution in 1901 and precluded from voting any ex-offender not lucky enough to get a pardon from the governor. This was all intentional. The president of the constitutional convention said the clause’s purpose was “to establish white supremacy in this state.”
It took a mere 84 years for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn that section of Alabama’s constitution. Then, in the 1990s, the Alabama legislature re-inserted “moral turpitude” back into the constitution, and said it only applied to felonies. Yet, the document was silent on whether the ban applied to all felonies or only some. It was left to the three-member board of registrars in each of the state’s 67 counties to decide. And so, for decade after decade, each panel defined what was a “crime of moral turpitude” and what was not. Unsurprisingly, this pell-mell approach to legal definitions resulted in generations of disenfranchisement of black residents, even those whose crimes were non-violent and who had served their sentences and peacefully re-entered society.
This year’s law wasn't enacted solely out of the goodness of the hearts of Republican lawmakers. It was passed, in part, because of a pending lawsuit filed by black residents, ex-offenders whose crimes were not remotely those of “moral turpitude,” who sought a ruling that would have struck down as unconstitutional the whole structure of the state's felony disenfranchisement scheme. While perhaps thousands of Alabama residents will finally be able to vote in this coming election, thousands more still are precluded from doing so.
Roy Moore knew all of this. But his is not a campaign of nuance or inclusion. His is a campaign of division and dishonor. In the same way Moore wants white voters in the state to be afraid of gays, lesbians, and socialists-- outsiders, is how he might put it-- he also wants those voters to be afraid of their black neighbors-- insiders, you might say.
The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.