The state of Georgia has become a key battleground for black voting rights.
In 2018, Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams, the nation’s first-ever major-party African-American woman nominee for governor, narrowly lost to Secretary of State Brian Kemp after thousands of black voters saw their absentee ballots thrown out, polling places consolidated, and voting machines warehoused in their precincts. These incidents led to a sharp outcry and questions of legitimacy, because Kemp was administering the same election he was running in. Nonetheless, the election was extremely close — a margin of just 50,000 votes decided the outcome in a state of over 10 million people.
Now, ahead of the 2020 election, The Daily Beast has published an analysis on another racially discriminatory law that could play a substantial role in the outcome: “moral turpitude” laws.
In some Southern states, Georgia included, felonies of “moral turpitude” can disqualify you from voting. The problem is that “moral turpitude” is not defined anywhere in Georgia’s constitution or laws, meaning that just about anyone with a felony conviction can be excluded if state officials want — and this applies disproportionately to people of color.
Ex-convicts regain their rights after completing their sentences, but remain ineligible while on probation or parole, which leaves some 250,000 people, or 3 percent of the entire voting-age population, disenfranchised — five times the margin with which Kemp carried the gubernatorial election in 2018. 58 percent of these disenfranchised ex-convicts are African-American.
Georgia is not the only state where moral turpitude laws have been used to deny black voters the franchise. In Alabama, moral turpitude used to be so ill-defined that black people were denied the vote for things as minor as cashing bad checks — and such voters were disenfranchised for life, even after completing their sentences. A Supreme Court decision in 1985, triggered ironically enough when the state tried to disenfranchise a white man, forced Alabama to restrict moral turpitude to felonies only.
In 2017, the state further revised its constitution to name only a specific list of felonies that constitute moral turpitude — and even then, the state carefully chose crimes that black people are disproportionately convicted for, like burglary and robbery, while leaving out crimes like public corruption and embezzlement that are more closely associated with affluent white offenders.
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