This year, a bipartisan group of state senators convened to form the Senate Study Committee on Revising Voting Rights for Nonviolent Felony Offenders (the Study Committee). The Study Committee’s purpose was to potentially define which felonies would not result in disenfranchisement, expanding voting rights to people convicted of crimes like drug possession and theft.
Some background: Georgia’s Constitution bans anyone from voting who is completing a sentence for a felony involving moral turpitude (completing a sentence means the person is either incarcerated or supervised on probation or parole). Since the state has not created a list of crimes defined as those involving “moral turpitude,” in practice, every person currently serving a felony sentence in Georgia is denied the right to vote. In addition to correctional control, outstanding fines, fees and other financial obligations prevent sentence completion, meaning that these debts are essentially modern-day poll taxes that keep otherwise eligible Georgians from voting. Senate Resolution 153, which created the Study Committee, noted that states with similar disenfranchisement laws are now working to define what constitutes moral turpitude for the purpose of re-enfranchising some people.
The Study Committee met three times, and heard hours of testimony about the history of felony disenfranchisement in Georgia, the racial and economic disparities, the lack of clarity about the term ‘moral turpitude’ and how debt is used to deny voting rights. The Study committee heard from various stakeholders, including people disenfranchised because of a felony, crime survivors, local and national advocacy organizations and students. Despite the recommendations and guidance they received, the Study Committee decided that it was impossible for the committee to define moral turpitude. (In 2017, lawmakers in the state of Alabama were able to define moral turpitude, by passing HB 282, which narrowed the list of disenfranchising felonies down to 47, expanding voting rights to thousands.)
Yesterday, in a vote of 3-2, the Study Committee recommended that the current disenfranchisement law remain intact in Georgia, and that all people completing sentences for felony convictions remain unable to vote.
“The decision by the study committee yesterday was extremely disappointing,” said Marissa McCall Dodson,SCHR’s Public Policy Director. “After hearing hours of thoughtful, researched and impassioned testimony about the problems with the current felony disenfranchisement laws, it is unbelievable that the committee chose to continue with the status quo.”
“We will remain vigilant in our advocacy for the restoration of voting rights for people convicted of a felony in Georgia,” said Sara Totonchi, Executive Director of SCHR. “All Georgians benefit when people formerly disenfranchised can vote for the people and policies that impact their families and communities.”