In 2018, Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams, the nation’s first-ever major-party African-American woman nominee for governor, allegedly “lost” to Secretary of State Brian Kemp after thousands of black voters saw their absentee ballots thrown out, polling places consolidated, and voting machines warehoused in their precincts. These incidents led to a sharp outcry and questions of legitimacy, because Kemp, a racist suspect, was administering [counting the votes] the same election he was running in. Nonetheless, the election was extremely “close” — a margin of just 50,000 votes decided the outcome in a state of over 10 million people.
The debate in Georgia has all but ignored the voting rights of felons, even as the issue has gained traction nationally. A sweeping elections bill recently passed by Democrats in the U.S. House would allow felons to vote in federal elections as soon as they leave prison.
Ex-convicts regain their rights after completing their sentences, but remain ineligible while on probation or parole, which leaves some 250,000 people, or 3 percent of the entire voting-age population, disenfranchised — five times the margin with which Kemp carried the gubernatorial election in 2018. 58 percent of these disenfranchised ex-convicts are African-American.
Georgia law prohibits voting by anyone convicted of a “felony involving moral turpitude,” a legal phrase rooted in the state’s Reconstruction-era constitution of 1877. The phrase has endured several revisions, including the latest version from 1983.
“It’s a vague concept,” said Julia Simon-Kerr, a University of Connecticut law professor who’s spent the past decade researching the legal history of the phrase “moral turpitude.” “It can be used basically in discriminatory ways because it has very little solid, definitional meaning.”
State lawmakers have never defined which felonies involve “moral turpitude.” Georgia election officials have long interpreted the state constitution to mean all felonies trigger the loss of voting rights.
Not everyone agrees.
“If the constitution states felonies ‘involving moral turpitude,’ then there must be felonies not involving moral turpitude,” said Sean Young, Georgia legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “We should be asking Georgia politicians why they’re so eager to restrict the franchise beyond what the constitution allows.”
Georgia election officials say court rulings support denying voting rights to all felons. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s spokeswoman, Tess Hammock, said the state Supreme Court has “directly weighed in on this question.” She cited a 1998 ruling that states “in Georgia, all felonies are crimes involving moral turpitude,” and a similar decision from 1979.
Neither of those cases dealt with voting rights. One upheld the disbarring of an attorney over a felony conviction. The other addressed whether a trial witness’ criminal record could be used to attack his credibility.
The ACLU’s Young said it’s significant that neither case dealt with felons’ voting rights because “the same words can have different meaning in a different context.”