Thousands of people with felony convictions won’t be able to vote in GA runoff

With the presidential election behind us, the eyes of the entire nation have turned to Georgia as we wait to see which party will have ultimate control of the United States Senate. The stakes are high — the results of Georgia’s two runoff elections in January may well determine what gets done in Washington over the next two years as the country attempts to rebound from its worst set of crises since World War II. And, if presidential election results in the state are a guide for what’s to come, we can expect razor-thin margins.

But more than 275,000 Georgians won’t be able to participate in this historic election because they have been convicted of a felony, according to Locked Out 2020 — a recent report from the organization I lead, The Sentencing Project. The state forbids people convicted of felonies from voting while in prison, on parole, or on probation.

Unfortunately, Georgia isn’t alone in such restrictions. Nationwide, millions of people were unable to cast ballots in thousands of federal, state and local elections due to a felony conviction. 

It is a disgrace that Americans can lose a right that is fundamental to the very premise of democracy. Our criminal justice system should not dictate who gets to have a voice in determining the future trajectory of our nation.

Laws depriving people with felony convictions of their right to vote have persisted for centuries. But felony disenfranchisement’s impact has accelerated over the past few decades since the onset of mass incarceration. Back in 1976, 1.2 million Americans were deprived of their right to vote because of a previous felony conviction. Those were abysmal numbers in the Bicentennial of our democracy. But in the decades since that milestone, policymakers have implemented a slew of “tough on crime” policies that were often motivated by explicit and implicit racial bias. Those policies gave us the shamefully high and historically unprecedented incarceration rates we have today. And, millions more have lost the right to vote as a consequence. 

Now, 5.2 million people — or one out of every 44 adults — are disenfranchised. People of color are disproportionately impacted by these pro-incarceration policies. Black people are almost six times as likely to be locked up as white people. Latinx people are more than three times as likely to be incarcerated as whites. 

As a result, people of color are systematically deprived of their chance to participate in our democracy. One in every 16 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised — a rate 3.7 times greater than that of white Americans. And over 560,000 Latinx Americans are disenfranchised. In Georgia, almost 146,000 Black people and 8,600 Latinx people can’t vote because of felony convictions. 

Nationwide, more than one in five disenfranchised people are on felony probation. These are people who are denied the vote because of previous involvement in the criminal justice system — despite the fact that they aren’t in prison or jail. 

The situation in Georgia is particularly egregious. Probation sentences there average about 6.3 years, almost double the national average. People with these circumstances are precluded from fully participating in their communities — even as they pay taxes, work, and raise families — for an absurdly long time. Moreover, even though it’s clear that the “War on Drugs” was misguided and targeted people with drug addictions and people of color, in 2018, about a third of Georgians stripped of voting rights were convicted of felony drug offenses. Losing the right to vote – our most fundamental right as Americans – is far too high a price to pay for a drug offense. 

Every person deserves a right to vote. Fortunately, several states are leading the way to restore voting rights to people with felony charges. For example, in 2018, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo used his executive authority to begin restoring voting rights to people once they leave incarceration and are placed on parole. Governors Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam of Virginia have signed tens of thousands of individual orders to restore voter rights. 

People unable to vote due to previous felony convictions elsewhere deserve the same care and attention. It’s time for state lawmakers nationwide to extend voting rights to all citizens regardless of involvement in the criminal justice system. The government should not be able to take away a person’s voice or undermine the political power of a community. Voting is the bedrock of democracy.

Amy Fettig is the executive director of The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that works to promote reforms in sentencing policy, reduce racial disparities in the justice system and end mass incarceration.

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