Senate committee rebuffs effort for nonviolent Georgia felons to vote

Committee Chairman Randy Robertson (third from right) during discussion about restoring voting rights for nonviolent felons. After a brief discussion, the Georgia Senate study committee on felon voting rights Wednesday voted to maintain the status quo. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Caption
Committee Chairman Randy Robertson (third from right) during discussion about restoring voting rights for nonviolent felons. After a brief discussion, the Georgia Senate study committee on felon voting rights Wednesday voted to maintain the status quo. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

A state Senate committee voted against restoring voting rights for any of Georgia’s 250,000 felons, recommending Wednesday that they remain disenfranchised after their release from prison.

Voting 3-2 along party lines, the study committee opposed lifting the state's restriction on voting by nonviolent felons when they're still paying off fines or on parole or probation.

The Georgia Senate unanimously approved studying felon voting rights earlier this year, but the committee opposed proposing legislation that would permit some of them to vote while they reintegrate into society.

State Sen. Randy Robertson, a Republican from Cataula, said felonies are serious crimes that come with consequences such as losing voting rights.

“If an individual chooses to commit a felony, then they choose to surrender their right to vote as stated in the Georgia Constitution,” said Robertson, the chairman of the Senate Study Committee on Revising Voting Rights for Nonviolent Felons.

The senators’ inaction frustrated members of voting rights groups in the audience, some of whom carried signs saying “Everyone deserves second chances” and “When a debt is paid, it’s paid.”

Caption
Community organizers for The New Georgia Project, a voting rights group, stood silently with signs after a Senate study commmittee voted against restoring felon voting rights. After a brief discussion, the committee voted Wednesday to maintain the status quo. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Community organizers for The New Georgia Project, a voting rights group, stood silently with signs after a Senate study commmittee voted against restoring felon voting rights.  After a brief discussion, the committee voted Wednesday to maintain the status quo.   Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Caption
Community organizers for The New Georgia Project, a voting rights group, stood silently with signs after a Senate study commmittee voted against restoring felon voting rights. After a brief discussion, the committee voted Wednesday to maintain the status quo. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Helen Butler, the leader of a Georgia civil rights organization, said the state is falling behind other Southern states such as Alabama, Florida and Mississippi that have taken steps toward allowing some nonviolent felons to regain their ability to participate in elections.

“They come back to their community and they’re contributing to their community, but they don’t have their voting rights,” said Butler, the executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda. “Leaving it as the status quo does nothing.”

Georgia is one of 22 states that denies felons the ability to vote after they've been released from prison until they fulfill all the obligations of their sentences, including probation and fees.

Democrats on the study committee supported a proposal to define a list of 127 felonies, including murder and perjury, that would leave convicts without voting rights until fully completing their sentences. Those found guilty of less serious felonies, such as drug possession and shoplifting, would have been able to vote after their release from incarceration.

"We've narrowed down these issues and said, 'This is how we should present a bill,' " said state Sen. Harold Jones, a Democrat from Augusta. "If we don't, it's just because persons don't want to do it, and that's not right."

Under the Georgia Constitution, those who have been convicted of a "felony involving moral turpitude" can't be registered to vote until their sentences are completed. But the state hasn't defined which felonies involve "moral turpitude," and election officials interpret the constitution to mean that all felonies limit voting rights.

The Senate study committee met three times to hear from groups representing voters, victims, law enforcement and criminal justice advocates.

The senators were tasked with "understanding that a blanket prohibition on nonviolent felons having the right to vote does not serve the state's compelling interest," according to Senate Resolution 153.

Though no bills will come from the committee, Jones said he will continue pushing to reinstate felon voting rights in next year's legislative session. He previously introduced a measure that would do so, Senate Bill 11, but it didn't receive a hearing this year.

Michelle Sanchez of the New Georgia Project, a voter registration group, said she’s disappointed that nonviolent felons are no closer to regaining their right to cast a ballot.

“This whole thing was pointless. It was a dog-and-pony show,” Sanchez said about the study committee. “They weren’t really trying to make any changes.”

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