Crime and Consequences: Felon Voting Rights in Georgia

On April 2, 2019, the Georgia Senate passed SR 153, designated as a Senate Study Committee on Revising Voting Rights for Nonviolent Felony Offenders.1 The committee will spend the rest of the year considering Georgia’s policies on felon voting and present their conclusions in December 2019. This is a step towards a less stringent approach to felon voting in the state; the current status of the law does not allow felons to vote while in prison, on probation or parole, or before all outstanding fees have been paid.2

As a result of the present law, 248,751 Georgia citizens, 3% of the state’s voting age population, were disenfranchised from voting in 2016.3 Of this number, 58% are African American, despite the fact that African Americans comprise only 30% of Georgia’s general population. Historically, Georgia and other Southern states have suppressed the African American vote, especially during the period between the end of the Civil War and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Discriminatory policies included poll taxes, literacy tests and a requirement for multiple forms of identification, all of which disproportionately impacted African Americans. Criminal justice laws were also passed to further limit votes. One of these was the law that restricts a convicted felon’s ability to vote.4 

This particular law has been based on one line in Georgia state law which establishes that anyone convicted of “a felony involving moral turpitude” cannot vote. “Moral turpitude” has never been formally defined, so Georgia lawmakers have interpreted it as inclusive of all felony convictions.5 Georgia law further states that felons only regain the ability to vote “upon completion of the sentence,” in which “completion of the sentence,” although not explicitly stated, has been understood as extending until the end of parole and probation.  

This is a somewhat stricter approach than other states. While it is common practice across the United States to deny felons the right to vote while incarcerated, the point at which voting rights are restored vary. There are four categories into which felon voting policies can be organized. In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose the right to vote, even while in prison. In sixteen states, as well as the District of Columbia, felons cannot vote while incarcerated but have their rights automatically restored upon release. Twenty one states, including Georgia, remove voting rights both during incarceration and until all outstanding fees are paid and parole or probation is completed. Eleven states do not restore voting rights until a grace period after parole or probation, a governmental pardon has been issued or other additional action is taken.6 

Recent trends have tended towards a quicker restoration of felon voting rights. Florida exemplifies this; as of 2018, a state constitutional amendment granted felons the automatic right to vote after having “completed the terms of their sentence,” which is defined as time in prison and probation or parole. This excludes felons convicted of sex offenses or murder; they must still petition the governor on a case by case basis. The former policy in Florida did not allow any restoration of the ability to vote until five years after release, at which point an individual would petition the governor if they wanted the restoration of voting abilities, a practice which functionally disenfranchised many felons from voting for life.7 

If the SR 153 committee returns in December with a more flexible policy, it will be a groundbreaking step in a state with historically stringent voting restrictions and allow an easier path for Georgians to regain their democratic rights after incarceration. It would also address a longstanding culture of discriminatory voting policies all too common in the South. 

 

  1. Georgia General Assembly, 2019-2020 Regular Session, Senate Study Committee on Revising Voting Rights for Nonviolent Felony Offenders http://www.legis.ga.gov/Legislation/en-US/display/20192020/SR/153
  2. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Georgia might allow nonviolent felons to vote after imprisonment.” July 5th, 2019. https://www.ajc.com/news/state–regional-govt–politics/georgia-might-allow-nonviolent-felons-vote-after-imprisonment/Z69dlytIWJYT2iZqNn1snO/#
  3. AP News, “Georgia stops voting by felons with the broadest reading of the law.” May 28th, 2019. https://apnews.com/44f3c3bd33dd4877b7a27a1592aed0d4
  4. UIC John Marshall Law Review, “A Historical Overview of Disenfranchisement, the Voting Rights Act, and Shelby County’s Impact on the 2018 Midterm Elections.” March 21st, 2019. https://lawreview.jmls.uic.edu/essay-a-historical-overview-of-disenfranchisement-the-voting-rights-act-and-shelby-countys-impact-on-the-2018-midterm-elections/
  5. AP News, “Georgia stops voting by felons with the broadest reading of the law.” May 28th, 2019. https://apnews.com/44f3c3bd33dd4877b7a27a1592aed0d4
  6. National Conference of State Legislatures, “Felon Voting Rights.” October 14th, 2019. http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/felon-voting-rights.aspx
  7. The Atlanta Journal Constitution, “Florida passes amendment to restore felons’ voting rights.” November 6th, 2018. https://www.ajc.com/news/national/florida-passes-amendment-restore-felons-voting-rights/R2bX4KyGAESChYBxeS7hZK/