Return My Vote: An Alabama Andrew Goodman Campus Team’s Voting Rights Restoration Clinic
As of 2020, an estimated 5.17 million U.S. citizens are disenfranchised due to a past or present criminal conviction. In Alabama, people who are disenfranchised constitute about 8% of Alabama’s voting-aged citizens and 15% of the state’s Black population. Alabama is one of 11 states with the strictest version of disenfranchisement laws in the U.S., barring citizens from voting not just for the duration of their sentences and probation or parole, but sometimes indefinitely, as they struggle to pay off fines and other aftershocks of incarceration.
At The Andrew Goodman Foundation, we believe that one disenfranchised voter is too many, let alone 8% of a state’s most vulnerable voting-aged citizens.
Disenfranchisement in Alabama
Since as early as The Alabama Constitution of 1875, and again affirmed by the Alabama Supreme Court and various Amendments, Alabama has disenfranchised its citizens with felony convictions. Over the years, as Amendments slightly altered the language of the law, it became unclear exactly which felonies and criminal charges result in disenfranchisement. On the heels of a lawsuit in 2017, Governor Kay Ivey signed HB 282 into law, which enumerates Alabama’s more than forty “disqualifying felonies” that result in disenfranchisement. This list, coupled with an outlined path to voting rights restoration in another Alabama bill, quietly opened up a population of newly eligible voters. However, the state did not carry out an education or notification plan upon the passing of HB 282. As a result, to this day, there are an estimated 300,000 Alabama citizens who are eligible to become voters again but are unaware.
Even for those who are aware of their eligibility to vote, the process to restore voting rights in Alabama is inaccessible. Alabama uses an online database called Alacourt to assess voter eligibility and restore voting rights when applicable, but Alacourt is expensive and requires training to navigate. Unsurprisingly, Alabamians who have a history of incarceration are less likely to have access to the educational, technological, and financial resources to use Alacourt and to complete the restoration process.
Return My Vote
Recognizing the people-power and resources inherent to institutions of higher education, in partnership with Greater Birmingham Ministries, Southern Poverty Law Center, and Campaign Legal Center, the Andrew Goodman Campus Team at the University of Alabama (UA) created Return My Vote, Alabama’s virtual voting rights restoration clinic. Any Alabama citizens seeking to determine their eligibility to vote can use the website to request a consultation with a volunteer staff member (likely a UA student) who has been trained and has access to the Alacourt platform.
“The idea for something like Return My Vote originated several years ago after I learned about the confusion and difficulty surrounding Alabama’s process for voting rights restoration. When I approached Sam Robson [an Andrew Goodman Ambassador] with this idea I really didn’t know how it would turn out. We were embarking on a big adventure together. It is really taking off now, and that never would have happened without the creativity and energy everyone involved has poured into this project,” says Dr. Richard Fording, Andrew Goodman Campus Champion and Professor of Political Science at The University of Alabama.
Return My Vote is a full-circle culmination of the research and planning of many people. Dr. Richard Fording began dreaming of such a program almost ten years ago, even before HB 282 was passed in 2017. Andrew Goodman Alumnus and subsequent Puffin Democracy Fellow Dana Sweeney, who published an article on his research on voting rights restoration in Alabama, made the initial introduction between UA and Greater Birmingham Ministries, and now sits on the advisory board for Return My Vote. Andrew Goodman Alumna Ava Fischer interned with Greater Birmingham Ministries and helped solidify that partnership as Return My Vote actually took off. Current Andrew Goodman Ambassador Sam Robson designed a plan which was submitted to and accepted by an annual grant competition held by UA’s Blackburn Institute, which awards $5,000 of funding from the Daniel Foundation of Alabama. Out of a perfect storm of partnerships came a thoughtful, sustainable program.
Following an initial consultation, Return My Vote staff and volunteers use the state’s criminal records database to help determine whether someone is eligible 1) to register to vote (i.e. their conviction was not on the “disqualifying felonies” list) or 2) to apply to have their voting rights restored (i.e. they have completed their sentence for a “disqualifying” felony and have no outstanding probation, parole, community supervision, or fees). Depending on the determination, Return My Vote staff help clients register to vote or apply to the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles for a Certificate of Eligibility to Register to Vote (CERV).
Though they were not even voting-aged yet in 2017 when HB 282 was passed, Andrew Goodman Ambassadors at The University of Alabama and their peers have become invested in this issue over the last several years, as they have discovered how many of their fellow Alabamians remain unaware of their right to vote. Andrew Goodman Ambassador Sam Robson reflects, “You see both extremes in this line of work. I meet people who would (and do) spend years fighting for their right to vote. I meet others who can’t bother to say hello at our tabling events. It’s an honor to help people use their voice to enact change, even when it takes far longer than it should. The people who stick with us make it all worth it. Voting is a powerful thing when not taken for granted.”
What started out as a grant-funded pilot program to run a series of voter restoration drives has turned into a sustainable online clinic that will continue to play a significant role in the re-enfranchisement of Alabamians. The Return My Vote team estimates that they have already helped over 100 Alabamians access their right to vote. With an ongoing supply of UA students and faculty to staff Return My Vote, the UA Andrew Goodman Campus Team has created a meaningful partnership between the University and the surrounding Birmingham and Alabama community in the fight for civil and voting rights.
Living the Legacy
The Andrew Goodman Foundation was born out of the Freedom Summer of 1964, an effort which specifically and unapologetically harnessed the people-power and resources that existed in pockets across the country to enfranchise Black and other targeted voters in the Deep South. Our legacy lives on through the work of every single one of our Andrew Goodman Ambassadors as they fight for expanded voting and civil rights, and this voter restoration project at The University of Alabama draws particularly noteworthy parallels to our founding story. Our UA Andrew Goodman Ambassadors and their extended team of students have committed themselves to a community beyond just their campus, much like Andrew Goodman and other Freedom Summer volunteers did. They have partnered with several local organizations, who hold deep knowledge of and trust within the community, to ensure that they carry out this effort thoughtfully and effectively.
At the heart of our legacy lies a deep commitment to organizing not only for our rights, but for those of our neighbors. Return My Vote is a great example of the ways in which Andrew Goodman Campus Teams and other student organizers across the country can harness the resources and power available to institutions of higher education to enfranchise our most vulnerable voters.
About the Author
Caroline Smith is the Director of Programs at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. Caroline works with young organizers across the country to institutionalize civic and voter engagement.