A roll of voter stickers sits waiting on a desk for those who submit their votes to wear at the Clarke Central High School polling location in Athens, Georgia on November 6th, 2018. (Photo: Kate Skeean)

American citizens have the right to vote and participate in our democracy, but, under Georgia law, that right can be taken away for committing even a minor felony. However, that could be changing soon. The Georgia General Assembly has begun to consider allowing nonviolent felons to vote once they are released from prison. A bipartisan group of state senators is looking at the voting restrictions and will make recommendations by the end of the year.

The state should restore the nonviolent felons’ voting rights after they are released from prison to promote fairer elections, along with reducing incarceration injustices in the state. 

Currently, the law requires that felons finish probation or parole and pay off any fines before they can regain the right to vote. It is important to understand what can count as a felony in Georgia. In Georgia, possession of more than one ounce of marijuana is considered a felony, and those caught can be imprisoned between one and ten years. For example, consider someone who was caught with 1.5 ounces of marijuana but was released early on parole for good behavior. Under the current law, the person would be unable to vote until finishing parole for this relatively minor crime. If the law were to change, however, the person could vote while still on parole. FBI data show that marijuana possession accounted for 44.9% of all drug abuse violations in the South in 2017, highlighting the widespread effects nonviolent felon disenfranchisement can have.

Because of reduced restrictions, more felon voting could sway elections. The Sentencing Project found that nearly 250,000 Georgians (3.23% of Georgia’s total population) lost their right to vote due to felony disenfranchisement in 2016 alone. In the 2018 governor’s election, the margin between then-Candidates Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams was a mere 54,723 votes, and Kemp avoided a runoff by only 17,488 votes. Thus, the increase in the number of voters could be significant in future tight races. 

The proposal would also challenge how some Georgians think about felons and voting. Growing up, I was taught that all felons lose their right to vote, and I imagine many other Georgians learned the same thing. Thus, these efforts understandably might seem extreme or strange to some lifelong Georgians, but the change would actually be relatively moderate. In fact, 14 states and the District of Columbia restore voting rights to all felons immediately upon their release from incarceration. Admittedly, most of those states tilt toward the political left, but the list includes some more conservatives states like Indiana, Montana and North Dakota as well. Two states — Maine and Vermont — go even further and allow felons to vote while still in jail.

With abundant political benefits, restoring voting rights to nonviolent felons would make elections fairer for people of color. According to the Brennan Center, convictions disproportionately affect minority communities, particularly African-Americans. Of the 250,000 disenfranchised felons, almost 145,000 were African-Americans, representing 6.28% of Georgia’s African-Americans. Thus, by taking away all felons right to vote, Georgia is limiting the power incarcerated minority communities can wield during elections.

As the debate over voting rights rages on in Georgia and across the country, Georgia should take minor steps like restoring voting rights to nonviolent felons as soon as they are released from prison. In doing so, Georgia would correct for overly harsh punishments for minor crimes and make elections fairer for all groups.

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