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Digital Illustration by Sarah Warrender | The Valdosta Daily Times

ATLANTA — In a party-line split, a legislative committee decided not to recommend expanding voting rights to nonviolent felony offenders in Georgia.

Georgia is one of 22 states that revokes an offender's right to vote during incarceration and while on probation or parole and before they pay off all fines and fees.

A Senate study committee looking at revising felon disenfranchisement laws had the standing to recommend a change allowing nonviolent offenders to cast a ballot as soon as their time is served. But during their final meeting Wednesday, the vote favored keeping the current laws unchanged — with Republicans agreeing to keep the current law and Democrats objecting. 

The decision shocked criminal justice advocacy groups that expected the committee to loosen the voting restrictions, even if just slightly. The committee heard testimony from former felons, advocates and government agencies throughout multiple meetings.

Opponents argued that all people lose their right to vote after committing a felony — no matter the felony.

As of April, the Department of Community Supervision oversaw more than 200,000 released inmates, 75% of those they considered to be nonviolent felony offenders. Those nonviolent felony offenders — 166,001 people with drug, property or other nonviolent offenses — would have been able to cast a ballot if voting rights were expanded.

Georgia was poised to follow other Southern states including Alabama and Mississippi in relaxing felon disenfranchisement laws until the final study committee vote swung the opposite direction.

“My hope is to have a conversation with the presiding Senate pro-tem to make this a priority of the Senate and also during the voters right caucus that takes place during the session,” said Sen. Randy Robertson, chairman of the study committee, during the final meeting. “That would give us an opportunity not only to have a public discussion but also a bipartisan discussion.”

Robertson, R-Cataula, cast the final deciding vote against recommending changes.

The difficult task the committee faced was defining “moral turpitude,” a phrase in Georgia code that describes severity of crimes. The current law excludes felony offenders from voting because they committed crimes of “moral turpitude.”

But what crimes fall into that category? One recommendation to lawmakers from the Southern Center for Human Rights was to limit criminal disenfranchisement to a list of specific offenses.

“A lot of times the waters are very cloudy between violent and non-violent felons,” Robertson said during the final meeting, “especially when victims groups are part of the conversation.”

Throughout the committee meetings, lawmakers struggled weighing sympathy for victims of crimes against the universal right to vote.

Marissa Dodson, public policy director for the Southern Center for Human Rights, said the organization was "disappointed and frustrated" after having prepared materials and presentations for lawmakers during the period of a few months — only to see no progress.

“Considering our capacity, resources and the time that we spent, providing information and recommendation, then doing the research and giving them all of the information that we did over the course of several months,” she told CNHI Thursday. “It's disheartening to know that they didn't even think our proposals enough — big enough — to have a thorough conversation about our proposals. (Thursday's) hearing was 20 minutes or less.”

The Southern Center for Human Rights presented statistics that allowing offenders to vote while reintegrating into society can reduce recidivism and offered recommendations to the committee.

Dodson said they were optimistic when the resolution for the committee passed with bipartisan support since criminal disenfranchisement is often a partisan issue. But after the surprise vote that split parties, the organization can only continue to push for the expansion of felon voting rights.

“We know that 2020 is an election year.” she said. “We know that there is felony disenfranchisement throughout the state so we will be working with our partners to do our best around education, awareness and registering people who think that they're not eligible, because of misperceptions about the current law.”

Cindy Battles, the election protection coordinator for Common Cause Georgia, said the decision surprised her, she thought at minimum, the committee would have defined “moral turpitude.” The nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group has previously worked with Sen. Harold Jones — who sponsored the resolution for and sat on the study committee.

Jones, the Augusta Democrat, sponsored legislation last session revising felon disenfranchisement laws that did not get a hearing. The legislation is still live this session.

Common Cause Georgia has a “zero disenfranchisement” stance, but the group felt like what was being considered by the committee was a step forward, Battles said.

Lawmakers need to start addressing and changing laws that were historically intended to disenfranchise people of color, she said.

“The legislature continues to be complicit in discrimination and disenfranchisement,” she said, “no matter how you word it.”

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