Marilyn Joyce/Augusta, GA: How easy is it to be tricked out of the right to vote? Not possible, you say? Think again.
Ever had a traffic violation? Got carried away at a college or office party and found yourself on the other end of a disorderly conduct or public intoxication charge? What about the divorce from hell coupled with false child abuse charges that were next to impossible for you to disprove? Traffic violations, disorderly conduct and abuse are examples of misdemeanor and felony charges that lead to a whole process involving jail, fines and probation. Wish we were all good little girls and boys, but the truth is: stuff happens and people are sometimes guilty of behaviors they now regret. Unfortunately, if you find yourself in the system, chances are someone in the system told you that you’ve lost the right to vote. Worse than that: you believed it.
Let’s be honest. There are those who feel superior to people who’ve been in trouble with the law. They boldly say that felons’ rights are unimportant. How quickly they forget that Robert Downey Jr. is a felon. Martha Stewart is a felon. Country singer Glen Campbell is a felon. Lewis “Scooter” Libby is a felon. Home Improvement, Toy Story, and Santa Clause 1,2 and 3 actor, Tim Allen is a felon. It’s all too true that prominent figures in our society stand a better chance of leniency when facing charges. While regular citizens – men and women alike – are more likely to face the stigma and consequences of a criminal record. Yet, I know many respected lawyers, doctors, nurses and pastors who are felons. Most people have no idea how many felons they interact with on a daily basis.
Nationally, an estimated 5.3 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions. 1.4 million Black men and 2 million Whites and Hispanics. According to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy) and The Sentencing Project (a criminal justice system research and advocacy organization) ex-felons comprise 2.5% of the state of Georgia’s population. 53% are African Americans which is 11% of the entire Black male population in the state. Over 66,000 African-American ex-felons in Georgia have not registered to vote. My question: what if they have not registered because of misleading information? They’ve been disenfranchised.
Disenfranchised: a word we hear a great deal during election cycles. It means: to deprive, rob, deny, take away civil or electoral privileges. The state of Georgia has passed laws in an attempt to address this issue, but if people abuse their power and continue to dispense false and misleading information, we must step up our efforts to educate the community.
Ten states restrict voting rights for people who only have misdemeanor records. Only 2 states allow people to vote while in prison: Vermont and Maine. In a few states, including Virginia and Georgia, you lose the right to vote while in jail, prison, while on probation, and while paying fines. Losing the right to vote until all fines or fees are being paid, has been called a poll tax – clearly a violation of the 24th Constitutional Amendment. Yet, only the state of Mississippi, in accordance with the 24th Amendment allows felons to vote during presidential and federal elections.
During the 2008 presidential elections, over 250,000 ex-felons were eligible to vote in the state of Georgia. Yet, less than 10% actually exercised their rights. Not surprising when I discovered probation offices told felons and then told me (to my face) that misdemeanor and felony offenders lose their right to vote after they’ve satisfied all of the terms of their sentencing. During my Georgia investigation, young Black men in particular told me they had ‘caught a charge’ (felony) in the past and their parole/probation officer told them (falsely) they’d lost their voting rights. One was told to wait 5 years before he could register. One said he’d been off probation for 3 years, but his probation officer told him that he would be arrested if he ever registered to vote. ‘I don’t want to go back to jail’. In time, I’d had about 50 similarly disturbing conversations.
Studies have shown that young people (under 30 years old) are notorious for getting their information by word of mouth instead of checking things out for themselves. They believe the word on the streets and anything they hear from YouTube® to the criminal justice system spreads like wildfire. I was unable to convince these men that their former probation officers had talked them into the state of disenfranchisement. If you have a criminal record, it is your responsibility to be fully informed and to then act on the truth that you know.
Many states make it next to impossible to get voting rights restored. Mississippi, for example requires each individual felon to ask their state representative to write a bill that has to be passed by both houses of the state to give that one individual their voting rights back. That requires literally thousands of people to request thousands of individual bills to be sent through the legislative process. In Georgia, since 1983 felons have had the automatic right to vote when their probation, parole, and fines are complete:
“Georgia law allows a person who has completed their sentence, (including any fines, parole or probation) to immediately re-register. There is no waiting period, special application or other process. All a person needs to do is re-register.” From the office of the Secretary of State
Read the Georgia law yourself right here:
Georgia Constitution, Article II, § 1
Every person who is a citizen of the United States and a resident of Georgia as defined by law, who is at least 18 years of age and not disenfranchised by this article, and who meets minimum residency requirements as provided by law shall be entitled to vote at any election by the people. The General Assembly shall provide by law for the registration of electors.
No person who has been convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude may register, remain registered, or vote except upon completion of the sentence.
Georgia Code § 21-2-216
(a) No person shall vote in any primary or election held in this state unless such person shall be:
(1) Registered as an elector in the manner prescribed by law;
(2) A citizen of this state and of the United States;
(3) At least 18 years of age;
(4) A resident of this state and of the county or municipality in which he or she seeks to vote; and
(5) Possessed of all other qualifications prescribed by law.
(b) In addition to the qualifications in subsection (a) of this Code section, no person who has been convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude may register, remain registered, or vote except upon completion of the sentence and no person who has been judicially determined to be mentally incompetent may register, remain registered, or vote unless the disability has been removed.
Civil rights leader, Fannie Lou Hamer would be disappointed to see the Black community depriving themselves of a right that ultimately caused her early death. In 1964, when she was 44 years old, Fannie Lou Hamer said some people showed up in her Mississippi community to inform them that Black people could vote. Even though the 15th Amendment had given Blacks the right to vote in 1870, most Blacks (especially in the South) had no idea they could participate in the political process. When she learned she had been disenfranchised, that very same day Fannie joined 19 people from her community for the bus ride that would take them to court to register to vote. On the way, they were stopped, arrested and beaten all night. That did not squelch her determination. Not only did she register to vote, Hamer went on to make legislative history. However, Fannie’s decision to register caused her family to lose everything and the injuries from that severe beating led to her early death in 1977.
Today, all one must do to be informed is go to the library, pick up a newspaper or do a search on the internet. There is not a good reason to be afraid, ignorant, intimidated, denied, robbed, deceived or disenfranchised anymore. Now that you know, go out and Do Your Destiny! Register to vote.
Marilyn Joyce, social commentator, speaker and author of ‘If He Doesn’t Deliver; Domestic Violence in the Religious Home’. Join her for more straight talk about abuse and success strategies to survive, get a life and Do Your Destiny at: www.TheJNewsWeekly.com. Join her in cyberspace and post your thoughts on the blog: www.ThePurposeZone.com.