Tens of thousands of formerly incarcerated Georgia residents are not allowed to vote because of a poorly-worded, unclear law that dates back to the Civil War era, according to NBC News. The voting law in Georgia currently states: “No person who has been convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude may register, remain registered or vote except upon completion of the sentence.” The phrase “moral turpitude” dates back to Georgia’s 1877 Reconstruction-era Constitution.
Georgia strips voting rights from people convicted of all felonies, from murder to drug possession, even though a straightforward reading of the law suggests not all [formerly incarcerated people] deserve such punishment.
Those seeking to regain their voting rights must finish their prison sentences, complete their parole or probation, and pay any outstanding court fees. This is a huge challenge in Georgia because, as NBC points out, the state has “more people on probation than any other state.” The law also disproportionately affects people of color and, as politician Stacey Abrams pointed out during her bid for Georgia governor in 2018, policies like the one in her state prevented people of color and those with low incomes.
Julia Simon-Kerr, a University of Connecticut law professor, spoke to NBC about the legal meaning of moral turpitude, a phrase she has been researching for the past decade. “It’s a vague concept,” she explained. “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.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Sean Young told NBC Georgia that politicians are not adhering to the state’s constitution. “If the Constitution states felonies ‘involving moral turpitude,’ then there must be felonies not involving moral turpitude,” he said. “We should be asking Georgia politicians why they’re so eager to restrict the franchise beyond what the Constitution allows.”
The Georgia Senate reportedly recently approved a study committee to research if some nonviolent formerly convicted people should be exempted from the voting ban.