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1 in 12 Tennesseans Is Disenfranchised

“James,” an ACLU-TN client, had been released from prison after serving time for federal wire fraud.

He had fully completed his prison term, probation and parole, and regained custody of his daughter. He was getting his life back on track and, just like his neighbors, wanted the opportunity to vote in upcoming elections that affected his community and his family.

The problem? Under Tennessee law he was ineligible to vote simply because he didn’t have enough money to pay what he owed in restitution and overdue child support payments, despite the fact that by that time he had regained custody of his daughter.

Tennessee’s disenfranchisement laws are among the most complicated and onerous in the country. Tennessee prevents people from voting if they have been convicted of a felony and are incarcerated, on parole or probation, owe court fines and fees, owe restitution, or are not current in child support payments.

James is one of over 420,000 Tennesseans, or approximately one out of every twelve voting-age people, disenfranchised under these laws. This includes people convicted of low-level, non-violent felonies.

Three-quarters of disenfranchised Tennesseans have completed their sentences, yet are still unable to vote due to Tennessee’s burdensome restoration process. The process is so challenging, in fact, that between 1990 and 2015, fewer than 12,000 people managed to restore their voting rights.

The ability to vote should not be based on one’s financial status. Tennessee’s current disenfranchisement laws create a two-tier system in which a wealthy citizen may be able to vote again almost immediately upon completion of his sentence, but a citizen who cannot afford to pay will not be able to vote for many years after release, perhaps ever.

The disproportionate impact of felony disenfranchisement is particularly profound in the African-American community. Many of the laws that deprive the right to vote stem from Jim Crow era efforts to disenfranchise African-Americans and they have been devastatingly effective.

Nationally, more than 7 percent of the adult African-American population is disenfranchised, compared to less than two percent of non-African-Americans. In Tennessee, a shocking 21 percent of black people – more than one in five – are disenfranchised.

We should not continue to punish people who have entered the maze of the criminal justice system and are finally starting to find their way out. Denying the right to vote to people who have served their time and are trying to get back on their feet serves no public safety interest. In fact, giving individuals who were formerly incarcerated a voice helps reintegrate them in their communities — a positive net gain for society.

The ACLU of Tennessee has been working to change our state’s burdensome voter restoration laws for well over a decade in the courts and at the capitol, but the fight continues today.

Those joining with us include Free Hearts, League of Women Voters, Delta Sigma Theta, NAACP, Project Return, The Equality Project, Americans for Prosperity and more.

The Tennessee General Assembly will be considering numerous voter restoration proposals, including initiatives to streamline the process, to ensure people whose rights were restored in other states can continue to vote in Tennessee, and to remove financial requirements.

These measures would help hundreds of thousands of people like James get back on their feet and become more fully connected and engaged in their communities.

In James’ words, “My dream is to have the opportunity to become a fully productive citizen again, regardless of my economic status. And I have the right to participate in the electoral process to bring about change to the issues that concern me most in my community.

'I’ve served my time, I am a taxpaying citizen and I have custody of my daughter. It is wrong for the state to punish me and other people while we get our lives back on track.”

We hope state legislators will seize this opportunity to ensure that individuals trying to make a fresh start can vote again.

Hedy Weinberg is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.

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