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Tennessee's Voter Restoration Gauntlet

For the past seven years, Dawn Harrington, 39, has been trying to get her voting rights back.

Her ordeal began on a 2008 business trip to New York City. Harrington, a Nashville native, says she was carrying a gun registered in Tennessee. But New York City doesn’t recognize gun permits from other states.

Harrington was arrested, convicted of gun possession and sentenced to a year in city jail at Rikers Island.

Afterward she returned to Nashville.

Unlike New York, Tennessee doesn’t automatically restore voting rights to people with felony convictions after they serve their time. So Harrington found herself caught in Tennessee’s byzantine rights restoration process, which required her to return to New York City to try and get paperwork signed. But on each trip city officials refused to sign her documents.

Like thousands of people in Tennessee, Harrington has been trying to navigate what experts say is one of the nation’s most complicated voting restoration processes. She estimates she’s spent close to $5,000 in the process, yet remained stuck in bureaucratic limbo.

“It just makes me feel like I am being silenced,” Harrington said. “And I am not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of people in Tennessee that are being silenced.”

Nearly 323,000 Tennesseans have completed felony sentences, but only about 11,500 have had their voting rights restored as of 2016, according to The Sentencing Project, a group that targets racial disparities in the criminal-justice system. More recent numbers are not available as Tennessee does not automatically track voting rights restoration. The state’s low restoration rate isn’t a sign of political apathy by the formerly incarcerated, says Blair Bowie, a lawyer who has been working on this issue in Tennessee with the Campaign Legal Center, a national organization working to strengthen the democratic process. It’s a result of an onerous restoration process that amounts to voter suppression, she says.

For starters, the state requires that court fines, fees and outstanding child support must be paid before registering to vote. But those who have tried to regain their rights, and organizers who are trying to help them, say the most daunting obstacles are often erected by the very people tasked with helping them—probation and parole officers, clerks and judges.

In 2018, the Campaign Legal Center launched a Restore Your Vote effort for people with felony convictions. When Ashley Caldwell, an organizer in Memphis, first started working with affected residents she said many thought a felony conviction barred them indefinitely from voting. She says probation and parole officers don’t explain the rights restoration process to people leaving state supervision.

Those same officers have to sign off on the voter restoration paperwork. It makes for a maddening bureaucracy. In Memphis, Caldwell says parole and probation officers often refused to complete the paperwork. They lack access to court records, so the officers say they can’t determine if someone is truly eligible. Records on court fines and fees and restitution are maintained by the clerk’s office. So for the better part of a year, Caldwell says, the officers would partially fill out paperwork indicating that people had completed their sentence and leave the rest of the document for the clerk’s office. But Caldwell says the clerks routinely refused to complete paperwork started by another agency.

Probation officers in Memphis even refused to sign the paperwork when people provided documentation from the courts waiving their fines and fees or putting them on a payment plan, Caldwell says. People can seek to have their fees waived by a judge, but they must get a waiver for each individual conviction in each court involved.

In a statement, officials in the Tennessee probation and parole office said officers fill out the “appropriate sections” of the certificate or restoration in accordance with state law. All new probation officers receive instructions on voting rights restoration during their basic training program, the statement said.

Kevin Phipps, public information officer at the clerk’s office in Memphis, says the office hasn’t received any complaints about the rights restoration process. He says clerks are responsible for filling out a section of the paperwork indicating people have paid off their fines and fees. But when the Campaign Legal Center surveyed officials in 27 of Tennessee’s 95 counties, they found few agreed on which office should fill out the paperwork.

There’s another wrinkle that adds to the complexity of Tennessee’s process: whether or not people actually lost the right to vote depends on the year they were convicted. The state constitution bars people convicted of “infamous crimes” from voting. Prior to 1973, the state spelled out those crimes. But people with convictions before 1973 may still be eligible to have their rights restored if they can show the courts did not consider the offenses “infamous” during sentencing. Anyone convicted of any felony between 1973 and 1981 never lost the right to vote. And after 1981, anyone convicted of a felony is ineligible to vote until they’ve finished their sentence and paid off all court fines, fees and outstanding child-support payments.

But Tennessee’s voter registration application doesn’t distinguish between convictions. All applicants must certify they have never been convicted of a felony in any state or in the federal system.

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