Tennessee’s voting rights requirements are so restrictive for its residents convicted of a felony and released from prison that the state ranks 49th in the nation in disenfranchisement rates. That’s one message Kathryn Greenberg, professor emeritus of the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, delivered recently in a virtual talk to the League of Women Voters of Oak Ridge.
She spoke about the League of Women Voters of Tennessee’s statewide initiative to restore voting rights to people with criminal records. The initiative has three goals: education, outreach and advocacy to make it easier for people convicted of a felony (other than murder and rape) to restore their voting and other civil rights. She is coordinator of this project as a member of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee board and is chair of voter services in Knox County.
League members will be conducting a survey to provide data by March 1 that may lead to standardization and fair treatment in the judicial process for people who should be entitled to have their voting rights restored.
“It’s really not about crime and its victims; it’s about helping democracy work for everyone,” she said. “It helps us if people stay out of prison because the cost of keeping someone in prison is $28,000 a year. It helps people released from prison have a meaningful life and full rights as a citizen, especially the right to vote.”
It was noted during her talk that Tennesseans charged with driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol for the first time did not immediately lose their voting rights.
She cited statistics and information from various sources available on the internet, including the 2020 article on The Sentencing Project website titled, “Locked out: Estimates of Americans denied voting rights due to a felony conviction.” The Sentencing Project is a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy center reportedly working to reduce the use of incarceration in the United States and to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
In the United States, one out of 44 citizens have no voting rights, but in Tennessee one out of 13 citizens are not allowed to vote. In Tennessee, more than 9% of its residents are disenfranchised, compared with Mississippi, 10.5%; Alabama, 8.94%; Hawaii, 0.48% and Maine and Vermont, 0%.
“In Maine and Vermont no one loses their right to vote, even if convicted of a felony,” she said.
Noting that as of 2020, 2 million Americans are locked up in penitentiaries and jails (compared with 200,000 incarcerated in 1962), Greenberg said that 360,103 Tennesseans remain disenfranchised after release and completion of parole and probation (in many cases because they have been unable to meet the required financial obligations).
According to the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office, only 3,415 Tennesseans (one out of every 105 people disenfranchised) have gotten their voting rights restored since 2016. She noted that only 11 states require payments of fees in pursuit of restoration of rights, including rights to get back driver’s and gun licenses.
In the United States, African Americans (6.5%) are disproportionately disenfranchised compared with non-African Americans (1.7%). Seven states have more than twice the national average of disenfranchised African Americans, with Tennessee and Wyoming having more than 20% of their African American residents prohibited from voting.
Greenberg said that 63% of Americans support restoration of voting rights to persons convicted of a felony.
“In the past 25 years, 50% of the states have changed their laws and practices to expand voting access to people with felony convictions. Nearly 3 million Americans had their voting rights restored from 1997 to 2018,” she said.
Based on 2016 data, in 12 states residents convicted of a felony automatically get their voting rights restored after release from prison, and in 25 states, voting rights are automatically restored after completion of probation and parole requirements.
That’s not the case in Tennessee.
What is sad, Greenberg said, is that many disenfranchised Tennesseans with criminal records living in our neighborhoods do not know how to get their voting rights restored or are discouraged by the financial obligations. The good news, she added, is that law students with the UT Legal Clinic received a grant to create a website, expected to go live in January, that will present all the options people convicted of a felony have to pursue restoration of their voting and other civil rights.
“We hope to educate Tennesseans about the options,” she said, noting that three options could enable elimination of financial obligations.
She added that some Tennesseans who have their first misdemeanor think incorrectly that they have lost their right to vote.
The first option involves downloading and printing out a form, called the “certificate of restoration of voting rights,” and getting it filled out and signed by people in multiple circuit court and county offices (including the election commission office), as well as paying multiple fees, such as court costs for a felony conviction and the cost of reinstatement of a driver’s license. All the fees could exceed $10,000, which is unaffordable for released prisoners trying to find a job that pays well.
To increase people’s chances of getting a job after release from prison, they often must get a “certificate of employability.” That’s so businesses with liability insurance can ensure the insurance company that it won’t be required to pay for damages if the worker with a felony conviction commits a crime that harms the business.
In the second option for getting voting rights restored, Greenberg said, “You can get out of the financial obligations if you can get an ‘affidavit of indigency’ that states that you’re unable financially to make the required payments for court and county services, including restitution for victims. You probably will need an attorney to help with eliminating the financial obligations.”
The third option, she added, is to “petition for restoration of voting and other civil rights” by sitting before a judge with an attorney or neighbor who’s a credible witness. “The petitioner could say, ‘I only made one mistake, I’m really a good citizen and I would like you to give me approval to make a petition to restore my civil rights, including voting rights.’ If the judge agrees, then the petitioner has no financial obligation and immediately gets the driver’s license reinstated as well as the right to vote. This alternative is not well known at all.”
Yet another possibility is to find out “if you qualify for expungement — removal or erasure of your criminal record,” she said.
Recently, Oak Ridge held an expungement clinic for people with misdemeanors.
“If you get your record expunged, you can apply for registration to vote,” she said.
The League of Women Voters of Tennessee agrees with THINK Tennessee’s recommended solutions: streamline restoration of voting rights, do away with the complexity of the process and standardize the records; eliminate financial requirements (that exist in only 11 states) and expand voting rights education for the incarcerated. On its website, THINK Tennessee describes itself as “a nonpartisan, results-oriented think tank that uses research and advocacy to build a state where all Tennesseans are civically engaged and economically secure.”
“By law, when persons are allowed to leave prison they are supposed to be informed of their rights and how to go about getting them restored, but we don’t know if that is happening in every Tennessee prison,” Greenberg said.
“In Tennessee, 43% of those released from prison go back to prison within three years primarily because they violate probation or parole,” she added. That’s higher than the 36% recidivism rate for the same time period in the United States, according to the World Population Review.
Some reasons why people released from prison might violate probation or parole, she said, are that “they can’t get a good job and they need money to live. They don’t feel like full-fledged citizens because we haven’t restored their civil rights and they cannot live in public housing. The places they can live in are horrible (especially if they are African-Americans), so it’s easier to go back to prison. In Florida, where people with felony convictions got their rights back, the number of folks who voted increased and recidivism decreased. Restoration of rights made a difference.”
During the Zoom call, 10 people from Oak Ridge volunteered to train for conducting surveys. They will participate in conducting phone interviews with officials in one or more of Tennessee’s 95 counties and record and return survey responses by March 1.
The survey data in the March report could be useful for a court case on hold brought by the Campaign Legal Center and NAACP in Tennessee. The case is about the lack of standardization and due process concerning getting voting rights restored to persons convicted of a felony. Attorneys for the state have argued that its response to the Rutherford County case resolved the standardization problem.
Rutherford County’s election commission office previously required any person convicted of a felony to pay the office a fee just for submitting to the state an application for restoring that person’s voting rights.
“That was considered a poll tax,” Greenberg said. “That definitely became illegal. The state removed the requirement and now there is no charge in any county for applying to the state for restoration of rights. But there’s so much more that needs to be done to standardize the process.”
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