In the post-Reconstruction period, as poll taxes and literacy tests were weaponized in an attempt to keep Black Americans from voting, a number of Southern states, including Georgia, moved to further codify felony disenfranchisement. This was done by targeting offenses which they believed Black people could be successfully prosecuted for and ensuring that a conviction for any of those offenses would result in permanent disenfranchisement. In Alabama, for example, the author of the state’s disenfranchisement provision “estimated the crime of wife-beating alone would disqualify 60 percent of the Negroes,” resulting in the final policy, under which a man would be disenfranchised for beating his wife, but not for murdering her.
The impact of the racist underpinnings of felony disenfranchisement has been devastating: more than 2.2 million Black Americans are disenfranchised today, or roughly 7.4% of the black adult population. For non-blacks, that number is 1.8 %.
More than three-quarters of the millions of disenfranchised Americans are now free and living and working again in their communities. They’re people like Leon Brown, who is entrusted with driving a tractor-trailer in the Savannah seaport — one of the busiest in the world — yet not entrusted with the right to vote. “I would like to vote,” Mr. Brown told the Associated Press. “I go off and do the time, come back out and they hold me hostage again because I’m on probation.”
If the goal of our criminal justice system is indeed to promote public safety, rehabilitate people convicted of crimes, and support people as they return home to their communities, there is simply no justification for continuing to deny someone the right to participate in the democratic process. Felony disenfranchisement serves only to further alienate and penalize formerly incarcerated people — who already face a myriad of challenges returning to their communities — and it weakens our democracy.
Restoring the right to vote is in alignment with our belief in redemption and rehabilitation, and it is a natural next step for criminal justice reform in Georgia. It is in our best interests to engage formerly incarcerated people in productive, meaningful relationships with their communities. Restoring the right to participate in shaping that community is one of the most powerful ways to do so.
Sara Totonchi is executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights.