Committee debates if convicted felon should vote

Published 7:21 pm Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Should a convicted felon who has served their prison time have their voting rights restored?  A Georgia Senate Study Committee met at LaGrange College Tuesday to discuss this question and the issues underlying it.  

The committee was created as part of Senate Resolution 153.  Members include Georgia State Senators Randy Roberston (Chairman), Mike Dugan, Burt Jones, Harold Jones  and Michael Rhett.  Their findings will be presented to Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan.       

Much of the discussion centered around one paragraph in the state’s constitution. It reads:

“No person who has been convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude may register, remain registered or vote except upon completion of the sentence.”

The state has not clearly defined what “moral turpitude” is or exactly when a prison sentence is considered complete.  Speakers before the committee Tuesday brought arguments for the interpretation of both phrases.

Christopher Bruce, Georgia State University professor and Political Director of ACLU of Georgia, said the phrase “moral turpitude” has been used by the state as justification to require literacy tests and poll taxes of would-be voters. He raised the point, “Why is moral turpitude a distinction [in the constitution] if it means all felons?”  Bruce explained that in practice, Georgia has used the phrase to mean all who have committed felonies.   

Neighboring southern states have clearly defined which crimes would keep someone from regaining their voting rights, even if that clarification is to say “all felons.”  Georgia has not done this.  

“Inmates are still counted in the census, and are constituents of yours,” Bruce said.     

Sara Henderson, Executive Director of Common Cause Georgia, told the committee her organization thinks all people with felony convictions should automatically have their voting rights restored once their time is served.  She cited studies that found “there is no criminal deterrent and no rehabilitative value” in withholding the right to vote. She said these actions have been targeted toward the poor and people of color.  

Henderson also said voting has been linked to “pro-social behavior,” explaining “voting encourages people to act on behalf of their community and lowers recidivism,” or return to criminal activity. “It is a positive overall to public safety,” she said.

In Vermont and Maine, people are allowed to vote in prison, a point brought up by Helen Butler, Executive Director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda.  

“I’m not advocating that,” she said to the committee, “but you could consider it.”  

Most speakers focused their arguments on defining time served. Part of the issue is addressing how fines, fees and restitution are handled. In Georgia, if a person convicted of a felony has served their incarceration time, and the only outstanding part of their sentence is a fine or a fee, their time is considered served, according to Nick Powell, Strategic Planning and Research Director of the Department of Community Supervision. Powell explained that if the person owes restitution to a victim, it must be paid before the sentence is considered served.  

Interest accrues for fines and fees, but no interest is charged on restitution.  If a person is already poor and has trouble getting work because of their felony conviction, it may take decades to pay off these bills, basically extending their sentence, according to Toni Meyers, Director of State Strategy and Reentry for the Legal Action Center of Georgia.  

“Wealth should not be a barrier,” she said.

Meyers’ brother was diverted from incarceration and into a treatment program for substance abuse in New York and served five years of probation. 

Through all of it, he never lost his right to vote. After serving his sentence, he earned a degree. In caring for his daughter, he became excited about local elections and choosing who would serve in offices like school superintendent, which would affect his daughter’s life. Meyers therefore recommended the committee consider automatic reinstatement of voting or limiting disenfranchisement to a list of specific offenses.  

A group of political science students from LaGrange College presented brief statements about research they completed on the topic, answering questions about the effects of giving people convicted of felonies the right to vote.  

People from the faith community spoke, advocating grace for those who served their time.   

One citizen who lost her son to a violent crime said she had forgiven the man who did it but did not think he should be given back his right to vote.  

“My son can’t vote,” she said.  

Two women who had served their time for felony offenses argued for their right to vote.   Bridgette Simpson, community organizer for Women on the Rise, said when she got out of prison, “I was not known as a citizen, but a felon. I wore a scarlet letter.”  

She said she has gone on to become an activist for the rights of others, canvassing for candidates she is not allowed to vote for.  

“We need to change the narrative of the formerly incarcerated,” Simpson said, “I pay taxes.  But I can’t vote.”

The committee of state senators, led by State Senator Randy Robertson, was at LaGrange College at Robertson’s direction.  

“I want people to see their government at work,” he said.  

Usually meetings like the one held Tuesday are at the capitol in Atlanta, but Robertson has had two meetings in the district — Tuesday’s forum and one at Columbus State University.

No action is expected on the felony voting issue in this legislative session, according to Robertson.