April 15, 2008
In late March, Georgia's Columbus-Muscogee County Elections & Registration Office mailed out upwards of 700 letters informing voters they had become ineligible to vote because they had been convicted of felonies. The problem? A potentially large number of them hadn't been.
As in 47 other states across the nation
, Georgia disqualifies otherwise-eligible voters who are convicted of felonies, a practice known as felony disfranchisement. Officially, this practice - which traces its ancestry to post-Civil War attempts by southern states to limit the political participation of newly-enfranchised African-Americans - has led to the disfranchisement of over 5.3 million Americans. In practice, however, its implications are much broader, extending to voters like those in Muscogee County who are erroneously disqualified by elections officials struggling to implement complex disfranchisement policies.
As the Ledger-Enquirer reported
, Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel's office recently began using a computer program to determine which voters must be disqualified due to felony convictions,comparing information received from the county courts with information in the Georgia Department of Corrections and statewide voter registration databases. This process generated far more names than it should have, including many voters whose names - but not necessarily other information - matched those of people with felony convictions. The list that went to Muscogee County was over-inclusive as a result, but the county nevertheless sent form letters to a majority of those individuals on the list, thus mistakenly purging hundreds of voters from the rolls.
The confusion is, no doubt, compounded by Georgia's flawed and vague felony disfranchisement policy: Georgia law disfranchises people convicted of felonies involving "moral turpitude," but no list of crimes that meets this definition exists.
This violation of the fundamental right to vote for as many as 700 Muscogee County voters - not to mention voters in other counties who may have been subject to the same errors - might remind you of similarly flawed "purges" of eligible voters in Florida and elsewhere
in important election years. This issue must be taken seriously and remedied properly. Secretary of State Handel has advised citizens who receive the letter in error to call her office to correct it, but - as the ACLU noted in a letter to Secretary Handel yesterday
- the burden should be on her to act affirmatively to correct her mistake and ensure that it is not repeated.
Voting is the bedrock of our democracy, but as long as felony disfranchisement exists, American voters will be vulnerable to these kinds of purges.
To learn more about the ACLU's work to end felony disfranchisement, visit www.aclu.org/righttovote