Johnny Kauffman for WABE:
Tariq Baiyina has lobbied politicians, shaken hands with governors, set up a college program, and delivered dozens of sermons. Despite all this, the 42-year-old has never voted. And the reason is simple: since 2002, when he was convicted of a felony, he hasn’t been allowed.
Felony disenfranchisement has become commonplace in the US, where 5.2 million people can’t vote, according to a new estimate from the Sentencing Project. While dozens of countries allow all people held in prison to vote, only two states Vermont and Maine — as well as Washington, D.C, do so in the US. And in some states people lose their voting rights even after they’ve been released. In Georgia, where Baiyina was convicted, for example, the ban lasts through probation and parole, which can extend decades after serving time.
Black Americans, like Baiyina, are about 3.7 times as likely to lose their voting eligibility than other adults. But as the country begins to confront head-on issues of racism and inequality, more states are scaling back felony disenfranchisement. Earlier this year, Iowa became the final state to lift what had been a lifetime ban. In Florida, voters in 2018 approved a referendum restoring eligibility to people who are off probation or parole, though it was quickly dismantled by Republicans.
When Baiyina was convicted nearly two decades ago of armed robbery and carjacking, he wasn’t thinking about how people elected to run the government might affect his life, but soon he would become part of that movement, fighting to win power for himself and others punished by the legal system. In a few years, he would grow into a leading voice against felony disenfranchisement in Georgia. And for Baiyina, the cause is about more than just winning influence over who writes laws, it’s a personal quest to escape lingering punishment, and find citizenship. A quest that his own mistakes could quickly, and dramatically, interrupt.