State senators meet today to weigh easing felon voting constraints

By: - September 20, 2019 9:04 am

Georgia’s primary election has been bumped to June, which is a change some state officials hope will increase the likelihood of more people being able to vote in person. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

A group of state senators will look at ways to restore the voting privileges of non-violent convicted felons when they are freed instead of waiting until parole and other sentencing terms are complete.

State Sen. Harold Jones says he filed legislation this year to relax felon voting rights because thousands of Georgians are penalized for too long. It is still pending for the 2020 legislative session.

The Augusta Democrat is one of five Senate study committee members meeting today in Columbus to kick off the panel’s deliberations.

“When you look at (drug-related crimes) being the largest nonviolent type of offense that you have and you realize how politicized the drug war was, then the fact that we’re taking a person’s right to vote away from them is not right,” Jones said.

And the committee’s chairman says he is open to changes that will let some people convicted of victim-less crimes participate in society more than current law allows.

Study committee chair Sen. Randy Robertson, a Cataula Republican

“While Georgia’s laws should remain strong when punishing those convicted of dangerous crimes, we also want to ensure that non-violent offenders have the opportunity to reintegrate into society,” said Sen. Randy Robertson, a Republican from Cataula.

It’s hard to find a basis to estimate the number of felons likely to apply to have their voting rights restored. No agency apparently tracks how many freed felons try to register to vote after their sentence is finished.

The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office only keeps a list of people currently serving a felony sentence, a spokeswoman said. Anecdotally, a staff member at the Bibb County Board of Elections office estimated that more than a few dozen former felons completed steps to regain the right to vote in the past year. 

What is known is that more than 250,000 Georgians are serving out terms of felony sentences, including about 54,000 in jail or prison. 

About 80% of felonies are of a non-violent nature, according to Doug Ammar, executive director of the Georgia Justice Project. And Georgia far outpaces other states in the number of people on probation, he said. 

Doug Ammar, executive director of the Georgia Justice Project. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

Georgia’s law doesn’t limit how long felons can serve on probation or parole, leaving some people to wait for years after they’ve earned their freedom.

About four years ago the organization found a wide gap in what many election’s office employees knew Georgia’s felon voting law.

“That law is only as good as it is applied, enforced and understood and used,” Ammar said. “What we saw and continue to see is that many people don’t know what the law is and how to exercise that right.” 

The American Civil Liberties Union is also focusing on felons’ access to the ballot box.

“People who have made mistakes in their lives deserve another chance to be a part of our democracy,” said Sean Young, legal director for the ACLU of Georgia. “Disenfranchising people for mistakes they have made is part of a 150-year history of racist voter suppression.”

Controversies over voting rights simmered throughout the 2018 Georgia election season, with partisans exchanging allegations of voter suppression and fears of voting fraud. 

The Senate study committee also plans to clarify the part of Georgia’s law that says anyone convicted of a felony considered to be a violation of “moral turpitude” is unable to vote until their sentence is completed.

It’s noteworthy that Georgia’s felon voting laws are relatively moderate compared to other southern states, Ammar said.

Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia are the only states that permanently ban anyone convicted of a felony from voting again. There are 15 states that only prevent felons from voting while they’re in prison, according to the ACLU.

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.