Voting Rights For Georgians In Legal Debt Left Unclear By State Agencies

Georgians who are out of prison and off probation and parole are eligible to vote if they don’t owe fines, according to new information posted on the Secretary of State’s website.

Johnny Kauffman / WABE

Georgians who have been convicted of a felony and served their time but still owe the government money may be able to vote in this year’s election, but they can’t be sure unless they get extra paperwork.

And if they register to vote, or cast a ballot, without the paperwork, they could risk prosecution.

For years, state agencies have done little, at least publically, to clarify whether people are eligible to vote if they’re out of jail, have finished their time on probation and parole, but still owe fines, fees, or restitution.

It’s likely a disproportionate number of those affected are Black, although it’s not clear how many people face the predicament, and it may be impossible to know.

Marissa McCall Dodson at the Southern Center for Human Rights said the state is effectively disenfranchising people who owe legal debt, or at least creating additional hurdles to them voting.

“It could stop people who are otherwise eligible from registering,” she said. “It has a tremendous impact, and a very negative and disproportionate impact on a group of people in this state that have historically and perpetually been denied the opportunity to participate.”

McCall Dodson said she was not aware of anyone in recent years who has been prosecuted in Georgia for registering to vote or casting a ballot when they were still serving a felony sentence, although it has occurred in other states.

In the midst of confusion, Doug Ammar, executive director of the Georgia Justice Project, suggests people who have been convicted of a felony and aren’t sure if they’re eligible to vote obtain a “Certificate of Sentence Completion” from a probation office.

“That answers the question of fines and fees,” he said. “It says your sentence is over, and so if they say it’s over, it’s over, so people can register to vote.”

However, Ammar said many people don’t know the certificates exist, or that they can be requested.

A National Issue

Debate over criminal legal debt and voting access has increasingly drawn national attention. The U.S. Supreme Court left in place last week a lower court order that would allow Florida to block people from voting if they still owe money related to felony convictions. The ruling could affect hundreds of thousands of Floridians, and future court orders in the ongoing case could affect polices in Georgia.

The Georgia State Constitution adopted in 1983 bars people convicted of felonies “involving moral turpitude” from registering to vote and voting “except upon completion of their sentence.”

The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that “all felonies are crimes involving moral turpitude.”

According to the Sentencing Project, 248,751 Georgians are barred from voting because of felony convictions. Of those, 144,546, about 60%, are Black. Yet, a little less than a third of the overall voting age population in Georgia is Black.

But when does a sentence end for someone convicted of a felony? Are they required to pay off any fines, fees, or restitution they owe the government?

Recent statements from the Department of Community Supervision (DCS), the agency which oversees probation and parole in Georgia, suggest individuals have the right to cast ballots whether or not they owe legal debt, so long as they’ve served their time on probation, parole, or in jail.

“If money is owed at the end of a sentence, it becomes a civil matter and does not prevent a person from being eligible to vote,” an agency spokesperson wrote in an email responding to questions from WABE.

But when asked for more details, DCS responded with a seemingly contradictory statement that the agency does not determine voting eligibility.

“Other agencies are entrusted with that responsibility,” a spokesperson wrote. “DCS has never been an authority on voting eligibility.”

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, whose office oversees voting in the state, did not say whether people who have completed time on probation, parole, or in jail are eligible to vote if they still owe legal debt.

“Eligibility to vote is determined by Georgia law, it is not something that is determined by the Secretary of State’s office,” Raffensperger said in a statement.

Since Georgia implemented automatic voter registration at the Department of Driver Services in 2016, Raffensperger said, election administrators have seen an uptick in people who are serving felony sentences signing up to vote.

These individuals are removed from the state’s registration list weeks later based in part on data provided to the Secretary of State’s office by DCS and the Department of Corrections, unless they respond to mail from county election officials, and prove their sentence is complete.

When WABE asked for guidance from Republican Attorney General Chris Carr’s office about voter eligibility, a spokesperson referred WABE back to DCS.

“We have provided our client appropriate legal advice on this matter which is privileged. We will defer to their final response to you,” spokeswoman Katie Byrd said.

In October 2019, the Attorney General’s office sent a “non-privileged” letter to the Secretary of State’s office, citing a 1984 attorney general opinion. The letter said people who have completed their time on probation, parole, or in jail can vote even if they still owe fees or restitution, and they cannot vote if they owe certain fines linked to the crime under which they were convicted.

Yet none of this has been made public until now, and the lingering ambiguity suggests Georgia may be violating federal law, according to advocates for expanding voting access.

Months Of Back And Forth

 In May 2018, the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and the Southern Center for Human Rights wrote to the Georgia Secretary of State’s office requesting information about how it determines when a potential voter has completed their felony sentence, making them eligible to register and cast a ballot.

Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp won the race for governor later that year against Democrat Stacey Abrams. Throughout the contest, Kemp resisted calls from Democrats and civil rights groups to resign, and he denied accusations he made voting more difficult for people of color in order to gain a political advantage.

Months later, in February 2019, CLC and the Southern Center again contacted the Secretary of State’s office, now led by Raffensperger. The organizations were still asking when a potential voter has completed their felony sentence, and said the state may be violating the National Voter Registration Act by failing to “clearly and fully inform eligible voters of the state’s eligibility requirements.”

Multiple elections passed.

Then in January of this year, the general counsel in the office of the Secretary of State, Ryan Germany, indicated via email that a change was coming to wording on voter registration forms and the agency’s website, which would clarify who is eligible. He also said the state would send guidance to county election officials.

“As you know, there are a lot of things that we need to get done prior to the PPP [Presidential Preference Primary],” wrote Ryan Germany, “and this is certainly one of them.”

Soon after, the pandemic upended the 2020 election season. Georgia’s presidential primary was moved from March to May and then delayed again until June. The Secretary of State’s office scrambled to get absentee ballot applications sent to all the millions of registered voters in the state, which had never been done before.

The Secretary of State’s office has not publically clarified how it determines voting eligibility for Georgians with outstanding legal debt and did not respond to more specific questions from WABE.

Danielle Lang, with the CLC, called Georgia’s requirements for people convicted of felonies to regain their right to vote “super confusing,” which she says may be a bigger hindrance to voting than the requirements themselves.

“It creates these kind of unnecessary obstacles, which I think actually probably affect very few people if you were actually able to drill down on it, but affects a lot of people because of the confusion it creates,” she said.

Joseph Kirk would also like to see clarity from the state about voting eligibility for people who still owe fines, fees, or restitution after a felony conviction. Kirk is election supervisor in Bartow County, just north of metro Atlanta.

“Voter registration and elections aren’t necessarily easy. A lot of this stuff gets complicated,” he said. “The more clear cut information we put out to the public that tells them what their rights and responsibilities are, the easier it will be to educate them, the smoother our elections will run.”

Correction: When WABE asked for guidance from Republican Attorney General Chris Carr’s office about voter eligibility, a spokesperson referred WABE back to DCS not the Secretary of State.