With each election, Republicans attempt new methods for disenfranchising communities of color. In 2016, voter ID laws became the new battlefield. In 2020, the big new battleground will be so-called “moral turpitude.”
This week, the state of Georgia has come under increasing pressure to change its moral turpitude law because it unfairly disenfranchises thousands of Georgians. In a state that could help decide the presidential race, this is a big deal.
Moral turpitude laws claim to target people who have committed “immoral” acts and therefore need to be disenfranchised, prevented from obtaining employment, or expelled for the supposed well-being of society. They have been around for a long time, but recently they have become a hot-button issue as progressives champion felon enfranchisement, immigration reform, and rely on large voter turnouts from communities of color.
The issue with these laws has always been the vagueness of what legally constitutes “moral turpitude” and the racist application of the laws. This American interpretation of “morality” has always disproportionately harmed and disenfranchised communities of color, and this standard will harm Democrats next November.
Starting after Reconstruction in the 1870s, “moral turpitude” statutes became a new feature of the new constitutions of the formerly Confederate states, as they sought new methods for disenfranchising recently enfranchised African Americans. These constitutions laid the legal and rhetorical foundation for systemic segregation and Jim Crow.
Voter suppression of African Americans played a big part in these new constitutions and laws, but so did the criminalizing of black life. After the Civil War, Southern states created “black codes” to criminalize black existence, and these laws imprisoned black people for the “crimes” of vagrancy, unemployment, and other normal aspects of life. Black life also became “immoral,” and this is where moral turpitude comes into play.
Southern states began removing someone’s right to vote and make it harder for them to obtain employment if they were convicted of a “crime involving moral turpitude.” Yet these new state constitutions also never defined exactly what acts constituted moral turpitude. Therefore, basically, any person in these states could have their voting rights taken away and employment opportunities reduced for committing almost any crime. Not surprisingly, “moral turpitude” with regards to voting has been applied almost exclusively to non-white Americans.
Up until the 1980s, Alabama regularly employed “moral turpitude” to strip African Americans of their voting rights for committing trivial misdemeanors such as cashing a bad check. However, in 1980s, Alabama made a major miscalculation: The state took away a white man’s right to vote for cashing a bad check. Victor Underwood took Alabama to court. In 1985, in Hunter v. Underwood, the Supreme Court ruled in Underwood’s favor.
Alabama responded by making “crimes involving moral turpitude” pertain only to felonies, but it never specified which felonies. This ambiguity was then challenged, and only in 2017 did Alabama provide a list specifying which felonies constitute a “crime of moral turpitude.” Not surprisingly, white collar crimes such as corruption and embezzlement are not on this list, but crimes associated with low-income communities, including theft, burglary, and robbery, are. This subtle change made a massive impact, expanding the vote to thousands of Alabamans, and later that year Doug Jones became Alabama’s first Democrat senator in 20 years.
And sadly, Georgia has followed Alabama’s pre-2017 lead. Georgia’s constitution bans voting by anyone convicted of a “felony involving moral turpitude,” and the state interprets this provision to include all felonies. Moral turpitude first appeared in Georgia’s 1877 post-Reconstruction constitution, and has reappeared in the state’s subsequent constitutions.
Georgia does not bar felons from voting for life, but does require that they finish their sentence before they can reclaim the franchise. However, Georgia considers probation and parole as part of one’s sentence. Georgia currently has over 400,000 people on probation, and the Sentencing Project estimates that nearly 250,000 Georgians — 3 percent of the state’s voting-age population — were barred from voting in 2016 due to felony convictions. Fifty-eight percent of these disenfranchised Georgians were African-American.
In 2018, Democrat Stacey Abrams lost the Georgia gubernatorial election to Brian Kemp by just over 50,000 votes. Georgia should be a toss-up in 2020, but the hijacking and corrupting of “morality” to disenfranchise voters gives the Republicans a slight edge.
Moral turpitude, however, does not pertain to just voting rights, felon enfranchisement, employment, and the African-American community. “Crimes involving moral turpitude” also play a significant role in America’s immigration polices.
Throughout American history this country has attempted to prevent certain people from entering the nation for various reasons, but the concept of morality for targeting specific immigrant groups did not appear until Congress passed the Page Act of 1875 that banned Chinese women from entering the country. In the Page Act, Chinese women were described as “undesirable” and engaging in prostitution, and it served as the precursor for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that banned all Chinese immigration to America. America banned Chinese immigration until 1943, and even then the Magnuson Act only allowed 105 Chinese to enter the country each year.
“Moral turpitude” did not officially become part of immigration law until the Immigration Act of 1891, which applied similar “moral” justifications for limiting immigration from continental Europe, Mexico, and the Caribbean. In the late 19th century white Anglo-Saxon Americans chose to depict anyone who was not a WASP as immoral, and this standard still influences much of our immigration policy.
In 1917 homosexuals were banned from entering America because sodomy was considered a “crime of moral turpitude.” And just as at the state-level, the definition of moral turpitude remains notoriously vague with regard to immigration too, and much discretion is left of immigration judges and law enforcement officials to determine if a “crime of moral turpitude” has been committed.
Today, being convicted of or admitting to a crime involving moral turpitude can result in deportation and denial of a green card. For families of mixed citizenship status the cloud and dangers of “moral turpitude” looms large.
Winning Georgia could mean winning the White House, so the Peach State must become the next “moral turpitude” battleground as Democrats work to expand and protect American’s voting rights. And this battle must also focus on how crimes of moral turpitude impairs one’s ability to obtain employment and destabilizes immigrant communities.
For America to become the moral, equitable, and democratic nation we aspire it to be, we can no longer depend on the racist immorality of the 1800s to define our morality.