In 2008, one of my relatives was told he didn’t have voting rights.I got angry and conducted my own investigation, and rectified the situation. Here’s my column as it appeared in TSV (The Spiritual Voice News) in July 2008:
Marilyn Joyce/Augusta, GA: How easy is it to be tricked out of the right to vote in Augusta, Georgia? 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 disorderly intoxication charge? What about the divorce from hell coupled with false child abuse charges that were next to impossible for you to disprove? 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 in Augusta, Georgia chances are someone in the system told you that you’ve lost the right to vote. Worse than that: you believed it.
Traffic violations, disorderly conduct and abuse are examples of misdemeanor and felony charges that could lead to a whole process involving jail, fines and probation. While it is true that you lose the right to vote while you’re in jail or prison, paying fines or on probation this is only true if you’ve been charged with a felony. Once you’ve done your time, paid your fines and probation has ended all you have to do is register to vote. You never lose your right to vote over a misdemeanor charge.
Recognizing the need for continuing education on this issue, in 2004 the ACLU partnered with Cathy Cox (Georgia’s Secretary of State at the time) and the Georgia Rural Urban Summit on a project to create and place ‘Get Your Vote Back; Restore your right to vote!’ posters in every parole and probation office throughout the state. The posters were important because it very plainly stated: Georgia law makes felons eligible to register to vote immediately upon completing their sentence. It is automatic; there is no application or formal process. Here is Cox’s complete quote from that poster:
“The right to choose our leaders is perhaps the most fundamental right we have as Americans. Georgians who have been convicted of a felony ARE still eligible to exercise this right by registering to vote upon completion of their sentence.… Georgia law makes felons eligible to register to vote immediately upon completing their sentence. It is automatic; there is no application or formal process. There is a need for greater public education on this issue as these citizens begin to rebuild their lives and become productive members of society.” Cathy Cox, Secretary of State
In January 2008, Karen C. Handel was sworn in as the current Secretary of State. Perhaps the changing of the guard is the reason the old posters are no longer on the walls. However, if the old ‘Get Your Vote Back’ posters were ever actually displayed for 4 whole years (as they should have been), why did two probation offices (Walton Way and Greene Street) in Augusta tell me (to my face) that misdemeanor and felony ex-offenders lose their right to vote?
In fact, I have a relative who recently completed probation status who was confused as to why he’d been told by the probation office that he’d lost the right to vote. To his credit, my relative had done this research for one of his college courses, so he knew his probation officer was wrong. Nevertheless, it still took strong powers of persuasion to convince him to finally register.
Why strong arm tactics? After questioning young men in particular over a few weeks, a trend was apparent. One man after another told me they had ‘caught a charge’ (felony) in the past and their parole/probation officers aggressively told them (falsely) that they’d lost their voting rights. One was told to wait 5 years before he could register. One young man had been off probation for 3 years, but was told he would be arrested if he ever tried to registere to vote. He told me: ‘I don’t want to go back to jail’. In time, I’d had about 50 similarly disturbing conversations, predominantly with Black men all over the Augusta area.
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. Too often, they believe the word on the street. Anything they hear from YouTube® to the criminal justice system spreads like wildfire. I was unable to convince him that his former probation officer had talked him into the State of Disenfranchisement. If you are an ex-offender, it is also your responsibility to be fully informed and to act on the truth that you will then know for certain. I asked one young man I spoke with about his internet habits and challenged him to take some time away from his music downloads to look up his Georgia voting rights.
Because I found it all so hard to believe, I reviewed the voting laws for the state of Georgia again. Ex-felons have had the right to vote in the state of Georgia since 1983. Armed with this knowledge, I visited 2 probation offices myself and asked for information I could give my relative about his right to register to vote now that his probation, fines and everything was complete. ‘He seems to think that someone here told him he could not vote,’ I’d said. The results?
Walton Way (misdemeanor probation office) said they thought voting rights were lost for 3 months. (Not true). I only spoke with the receptionist at the window and in her defense; she did admit that she wasn’t really sure before she directed me to Greene Street. Greene Street is a felony probation office location. The receptionist there told me that ex-felons lose the right to vote for the rest of their lives. She also gave me an application for restoration of rights explaining that only first time felony ex-offenders could fill out this form to apply for the restoration of voting rights. An application to restore voting rights?
A quick internet search uncovered this statement on the Georgia Secretary of State elections information website: “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.”
The Secretary of State’s office had me to send them this so-called ‘application’ so they can address this falsehood. Meanwhile, back on Greene Street, I informed the receptionist that Georgia law does not support this and that I had looked it up for myself. She excused herself to go speak to her director, only to return with the same falsehood. In truth, ex-felons have had the right to vote in Georgia since 1983. 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.
Let’s be honest. There are those who feel superior to people who’ve been in trouble with the law. They boldly say that ex-felons rights are unimportant. How quickly they forget that Robert Downey Jr. is an ex-felon. Martha Stewart is an ex-felon. Country singer Glen Campbell is an ex-felon. Lewis “Scooter” Libby is an ex-felon. It’s true that prominent figures in our society stand a better chance of leniency when facing charges. Regular citizens – men and women – 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 ex-felons. Most people have no idea how many ex-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 are Black men and 2 million are 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.
Civil rights leader, Fannie Lou Hamer would be disappointed to see the Black community depriving themselves by neglecting their voting rights. 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. Once she learned they had been disenfranchised, that very same day Fannie joined 19 people from her community for the bus ride that would take them to the court where they would 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, she went on to make legislative history. However, Fannie’s decision to register caused her family to lose everything. 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’s no 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. ______Survive, Get a Life & Do Your Destiny! Marilyn Joyce_____