Following legal pressure from civil rights groups, the Georgia Secretary of State has published details about the voting rights of people who still owe the government money after doing their time for felony convictions.
In letters to lawyers for the Secretary of State, lawyers for the Campaign Legal Center and the Southern Center for Human Rights had suggested Georgia may be violating the National Voter Registration Act by failing to “clearly and fully inform eligible voters of the state’s eligibility requirements.”
Georgia’s state constitution bars people convicted of felonies from voting until they’ve completed their sentence, but it does not say whether all fines, fees, or restitution must be paid.
One line has now been added to the Secretary of State’s website which describes when a sentence is considered complete, at least for voting purposes.
“Your felony sentence is considered completed even if you have outstanding monetary obligations other than fines, such as unpaid restitution, fees, costs, or surcharges,” the line reads.
In Georgia law, potential sentences for some crimes include fines.
“We made that update in working with felon re-entry organizations to try to provide simpler language to former offenders about how they can re-register to vote,” Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said an emailed statement. “We continue to invite all eligible citizens to exercise their right to vote in the upcoming election.”
Danielle Lang, with the Campaign Legal Center, called the seemingly small change on the Secretary of State’s website “enormously important.”
“Voters with past convictions don’t have any interest in voting unlawfully and getting themselves back in trouble with the law,” Lang said. “This can give them the confidence that they have all the information they need to determine if they’re eligible.”
Lang said the information would also help organizations who register voters communicate to people who have been convicted of felonies.
In Georgia, 248,751 people are barred from voting because of felony convictions, according to the Sentencing Project. About 60% are Black, yet a little less than a third of the overall voting-age population in Georgia is Black.
Despite the change on the Secretary of State’s website, Lang and other civil rights advocates remain concerned that people convicted of felonies, but out of prison and off parole or probation, may be confused about the law in Georgia, and fearful of committing a crime by registering or casting a ballot.
Doug Ammar, executive director of the Georgia Justice Project, suggests anyone who is unsure whether they can vote request a “Certificate of Sentence Completion” from a local probation office, which proves their eligibility.
Ammar says the focus should remain on the certificates, and he worries any discussion of complexities or ambiguity in Georgia law may be a distraction.
“I’m concerned that it could create more questions and more anxiety on every side of the equation,” Ammar said.
Helen Butler, with Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, an organization focused on registering people of color and young people to vote, said she thinks most people with felony convictions in their past likely need to request a “Certificate of Sentence Completion” to be confident they’re eligible. But she sees the new information on the Secretary of State’s website as a small positive step.
“It will allow some people to actually be added to the voter rolls,” she said.