Georgia Senate panel urges no change to felon voting ban

The Georgia State Capitol building is seen Thursday, March 29, 2018, in Atlanta, Ga.

A Republican-led panel of Georgia lawmakers approved a recommendation Wednesday that the state continue to ban all felons from voting until their sentences are complete.

A state Senate study committee spent the fall reviewing Georgia's criminal disenfranchisement laws. An estimated 266,000 people in the state from voting last year because felony convictions had them in prison, on probation or parole, or left them with unpaid fines, according to Reform Georgia, an advocacy group focused on criminal justice policy.

Advocates had hoped the committee's five members, who met Wednesday in Atlanta, would embrace at least a partial rollback, such as restoring voting rights to some nonviolent offenders. Instead, the panel's three Republicans voted to recommend no changes, over the objection of its two Democrats.

"If an individual chooses to commit a felony, then they choose to surrender their right to vote," said GOP Sen. Randy Robertson of Cataula, the committee's chairman, summing up the argument of victims rights groups that oppose restoring voting rights to any felons.

Georgia has long kept felons from voting by using the strictest possible interpretation of a vaguely worded law rooted in the years after the Civil War, when whites sought to keep blacks from the ballot box.

The state constitution prohibits voting by anyone serving a sentence for a "felony involving moral turpitude." Georgia lawmakers have never defined which felonies apply. For decades, state election officials have applied the law to all felons.

A Democrat on the committee, Sen. Harold Jones II of Augusta, proposed recommending that lawmakers specify 127 felonies that would disqualify offenders from voting until their sentences were finished. His proposal would restore voting rights to those convicted of felonies such as drug possession or shoplifting unless they're in prison.

"It would be a middle of the road, kind of moderate change that people could agree with across the board," Jones said after the meeting. He noted that Alabama and Mississippi have both defined which specific felonies result in disenfranchisement.

Roberston declined to allow a vote on Jones' recommendation to restore voting rights to some nonviolent felons.

"I think a lot of times the waters are very cloudy between violent and nonviolent felons," Robertson said.

Roberston also called any attempt to define "moral turpitude" in Georgia law "a herculean effort unto itself" that should be taken up separately from voting rights. Georgia law also uses "moral turpitude" in defining ethical standards for some professions including attorneys, nurses and teachers.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld criminal disenfranchisement laws like Georgia's, which is not the nation's most severe. Kentucky and Iowa bar all felons from voting for life. So did Florida until voters last year approved a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to those who serve their time. Nine other U.S. states permanently rescind voting rights for some felony convictions.

Even without the study committee's backing, Jones said he plans to introduce a bill that would define which felonies result in a loss of voting rights during Georgia's legislative session that begins in January.