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Civil rights group discusses restoring voting rights to former felons
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From left, Newtown Florist Club board member Sonya Wilkins, committee chair Ron Sheats and executive director the Rev. Rose Johnson meet Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018, at the club's office on DeSota Street to discuss recent voter registration canvassing efforts, particularly among those who are former felony offenders.

Even if it’s only a handful of people that can be registered to vote, the Rev. Rose Johnson said the effort will help people make a difference in their own communities.

“I think that we should just carry on with the goal of trying to work very hard to get accurate information out, no matter how long it takes,” said Johnson, the Newtown Florist Club executive director, following roughly an hour of conversation Thursday, Sept. 20.

The Newtown Florist Club, a Gainesville-based civil rights organization, gathered at its DeSota Street office Thursday for a “community conversation” focused on restoring the right to vote for former felony offenders.

“All of them are important, but I think this particular year is more important when it comes to voting and standing up for different issues and what’s going on in our country, in our state and even in our community,” said committee chairman Ron Sheats.

Sheats and other members at the table Thursday discussed their canvassing efforts in the community regarding voter registration, particularly among the ex-felon community.

While knocking on doors, the board members said the people encountered wanted to keep their pasts private or believed their vote didn’t matter.

Johnson said she hoped they would be able convene a group to speak on the issue about restoring their rights.

“Nothing helps to mobilize a community more than those who have been impacted and can speak for themselves. But nobody should feel shame,” she said.

That’s easier said than done, Sheats said, as some former felony offenders told him they weren’t interested in voting because of their criminal background.

“Really, a lot of them don’t want to be seen as an ex-felon in public or be around a table like this and being discussed that they are an ex-felon. That’s why it’s hard to reach out to them and hard for them to come in and participate and have a conversation about getting their voting rights restored,” he said.

The canvassers also reported there was a great deal of misinformation in the community on when former felony offenders can re-register to vote and what documentation would be needed.

According to the Georgia Justice Project, Georgians convicted of a felony lose the right to vote until the completion of their sentences, including any fines and fees. Twenty other states have laws similar to Georgia regarding ex-felon voting rights, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The State Board of Pardons and Paroles said the “right to vote is automatically restored” once the sentence is complete, and the person must then re-register with the county elections office.

A county-level elections official said when a person registers to a vote, a letter is generated during the verification process if a felony conviction is found that may not have a completed sentence. 

The best practice is for the person registering to file in person and provide documentation of the completed sentence to the local elections office to get them back on the voter rolls.

For the next conversation, Sheats recommended that the club invite a person from the parole or probation offices to discuss what felony offenders are told about restoring their rights.

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