A growing number of states are easing restrictions on convicted felons voting, allowing them to cast ballots once they’re out of prison, even if still on parole or probation. And the issue of people with felony convictions voting is on the ballot just to the south of Georgia, in Florida.
But, Georgia appears to be taking a different tact. About 250,000 Georgians aren’t eligible to vote this year because they’re serving out felony sentences.
And more people in Georgia have been kicked off the voter list over a criminal offense than any other state in the country during the past decade, according to an APM Reports analysis of federal data.
Election officials across Georgia have revoked the voting rights of nearly 147,000 people for criminal offenses since the 2008 election cycle through a process that includes layers of bureaucracy.
People in many states can have their rights restored after they’re released from prison, probation, or parole. But if someone in Georgia is convicted of a felony, they can’t vote until their sentence is completed, that includes probation and parole.
‘Keeping Black People In Line’
When Marilynn Winn was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, for her, breaking the law wasn’t about disrespect, or being selfish. It was about survival.
“I learned how to shoplift from a family member because I guess we didn’t have money to buy everything we needed,” Winn said.
Much of her life was spent under state supervision, including six prison sentences, and punishment for close to 30 felonies.
“I don’t even know how many times I’ve been arrested,” Winn said.
She completed her last sentence in 2010, and after dealing with some confusion over paperwork, registered to vote. Soon after that she cast her first ballot.
“I was excited,” Winn said. “Because I can vote now and so I make it a point and I remember my grandparents – every time they were there – so, I’m the same way.”
Today, Winn is executive director of Women on the Rise, an advocacy organization led by formerly incarcerated women.
Winn insists all the group’s member’s vote, if they can.
And it may mean more for these Georgians, and the African Americans among them especially, to cast a ballot.
Since 2016, and likely for decades before, African Americans have been disproportionately affected by felony disenfranchisement in Georgia.
Blacks accounted for 52 percent of felony removals from the voter registration list, nearly twice their share of the state’s voting age population, according to an APM Reports analysis of records from the Secretary of State’s office, and census data. Whites made up 36 percent of removals, half their share of the voting-age population.
Despite this disparity, courts have repeatedly upheld laws restricting voting rights for people with felony convictions. In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Richardson v. Ramirez that felony disenfranchisement does not violate the 14th Amendment.
Georgia’s incarceration rate is the ninth highest in the country, and the state’s probation rate is the highest in the country.
“African Americans proportional to their presence in the state of Georgia are overwhelmingly represented in the criminal justice system and they are overwhelmingly represented among the disenfranchised,” said Emory University professor of political science, Michael Leo Owens.
Felon disenfranchisement gained popularity across the South following the Civil War, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as whites looked for ways to maintain control over blacks. Prisons were filled with former slaves and poor whites arrested for petty offenses, like vagrancy, under new, so-called Black Codes.
All of this with an eye toward instilling fear in black people, and keeping them in line, said Owens.
“One way that, of course, one could do that, was by trying to lock up as many of the freed men and freed women as possible,” he said. “But also recognizing that if you couldn’t lock everyone up, and many of them would eventually get out, you could still find ways to hinder their citizenship, through the form of felony disenfranchisement.”
Fear And Confusion
There’s a consequence of felony disenfranchisement beyond just keeping people off the voting list. These laws can cause fear and confusion.
Earlier this year, a woman in Texas under court supervision was sentenced to five years in prison for casting a ballot.
Something similar almost happened to Kerry Bird in Georgia. Four years ago he was called before the State Board of Elections in a voter fraud investigation. He stood before the board, its members debating whether they ought to turn his case over to the state’s attorney general.
“It was scary,” Bird said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. What the details were. It was a scary thing. I didn’t know what to expect from that.”
Thinking he was eligible, Bird had voted in elections while he was out of prison, and still serving a sentence.
But election officials didn’t say anything about it until 2014, 10 years after he completed probation, and even longer after Bird says he turned his life around.
In 1989 he was convicted of theft, which he blames on a drug addiction that he broke decades ago.
“It’s a dark part of my life,” Bird said. “It’s something I’d like to put in the bank and forget about it.”
Bird runs the family farm he grew up on in Metter, a rural town about an hour northwest of Savannah.
His case was eventually dismissed by the state board of elections, which is led by Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican running for governor, who’s known for zealously investigating voter fraud.
But Bird warns others who have been convicted of felonies to double-check they’re eligible to vote, before going to cast a ballot.
“You don’t want to try to do the right thing, and you get more trouble for it,” he said.
The investigation rattled Bird but it hasn’t kept him from participating in politics. He’s paying close attention to the governor’s race, in which Kemp is running against Democrat Stacey Abrams. Bird’s been through enough, from military service to being banned from voting, that he thinks it’s vitally important to stay involved.
Change Unlikely In Georgia
Owens, the Emory political scientist, said the argument for felony disenfranchisement is a simple one.
“There’s the idea that you have demonstrated that you’re willing to break laws,” said Owens. “And if you’re a law breaker, rule breaker, why should you be allowed to choices and questions related to who will hold public office and the decisions that they will make to govern all of us.”
But Owens also points out people convicted of felonies pay taxes, have children who go to public schools, and that blocking them from voting doesn’t keep the public safer, like putting them in jail is argued to.
Florida, Virginia, Iowa, and Kentucky have lifetime bans on convicted felons voting, but in the last decade, eleven states have made it easier for people with convictions to vote, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Vermont and Maine, people can still cast ballots while incarcerated.
Winn, the leader of Women on the Rise, said Georgia should follow suit. Voting can give meaning to people convicted of felonies, she said.
“You will feel more whole and you will feel like a contributing member of society,” Winn said.
Arguments about giving voting rights to people convicted of felonies often turn to partisanship. The conventional wisdom is that because the disenfranchised are disproportionately black, allowing this population to vote would benefit Democrats.
But Owens argues the political consequences aren’t so clear, because people serving out felony sentences are also less likely to vote, period. They’re less-educated and have lower incomes then the general population.
There have been a few attempts in the last decade in Georgia to change the state’s laws on felonies and voting, but they haven’t gone anywhere.
In recent weeks the Georgia governor’s race between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp has largely focused on voting access. Felony disenfranchisement hasn’t come up.
This story was reported in collaboration with APM Reports, Angela Caputo and Geoff Hing contributed.