Why Thousands of California Felons May Soon Get Their Voting Rights Restored

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Guards stand near the front gate of San Quentin Prison. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

You can't vote in California if you're serving time in state prison or released on parole.

But you can vote if you're doing time in county jail for a misdemeanor or released on probation.

[RELATED: Interactive map of felon voting laws by state]

Simple enough, right?

Not really.

After the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 ordered California to dramatically reduce its super-sized prison population, the state began a so-called "realignment" program. Since then, thousands of low-level felons released from prison have been placed in county probation departments instead of state parole.

[RELATED: Realignment explained]

The question now is, do these folks have the right to vote?

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Absolutely not, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen told county election officials back in December 2011.  Felons under community supervision, she instructed, are serving the "functional equivalent of parole," and should be barred from voting until the end of their terms.

But on Wednesday, an Alameda County judge reversed Bowen's order, ruling that community supervision is distinct from parole, and as such, felons under community supervision should have their voting rights restored.

In his decision, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo said that "a Legislative goal was to reintroduce felons into the community, which is consistent with restoring their right to vote."

The lawsuit against Bowen's office was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the League of Women Voters of California and other groups on behalf of three former state inmates.

Bowen can still appeal the decision, which would likely trigger a stay, keeping things as they are. Even if she doesn't, it's still unlikely that this group of felons will have their rights restored before the June primary. But they could conceivably vote in November.