A felony conviction is life changing, and that’s putting it mildly. Imprisonment, restitution, and stigma are almost insurmountable obstacles for a formerly incarcerated person. The ways in which a conviction of this magnitude disrupts one’s life does not conclude at the end of a jail sentence or probation. Some states strip away the opportunity to own a gun, to travel out of the country, to work for certain employers, or to receive public assistance such as housing or grants for higher education.
In many ways, the most egregious of these losses is the loss of the right to vote. Voting provides a voice to the otherwise voiceless. It ensures that the will of the people gets reflected in the laws and policies that dictate everything from school funding and sidewalks to tax reform and anti-discrimination in public services.
Formerly incarcerated individuals who have arguably been among the most affected by the decisions of elected officials are cut off from the very process that protects their interests. In Tennessee, more than 421,000 people have completed their sentences and, while they go to work, pay taxes and contribute to their communities in a number of meaningful ways, they are denied access to the voting booth. Tennessee has the fourth highest disenfranchisement rate in the country and consistently ranks last in voter participation. Voter suppression and other tactics make it difficult to vote in Tennessee. Most concerning are the well-known statistics surrounding the incarceration rates for people of color and the affect that has on these communities. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 37% of all federally incarcerated individuals are African-American, an astounding figure considering that African-Americans make up only 13% of the population.
The revocation of voting rights for those who have been incarcerated touches the black population in proportions that are not seen in any other racial demographic. In essence, a larger percentage of black people than any other race are legally kept from the voting booth as continued punishment for an offense for which they have already served a sentence. In fact, 1 in 5 African Americans cannot vote in Tennessee due to a past felony conviction. It begs the question: is the revocation of voting rights an ethical, reasonable, or even pragmatic punishment for those who have committed felonies?
In Tennessee, those who have been incarcerated are not given the opportunity to restore that right unless they take steps to navigate a convoluted restoration process. The process includes financial requirements that are prohibitive for many people. Tennessee is the only state in the country that requires all court-ordered child support to be paid as a condition of having one’s voting rights restored. This sends yet another signal that we value those who have the means to pay for their freedom rather than providing access equitably.
The Equity Alliance believes in fair and equal access to the ballot box for all eligible voters. That’s why TEA, along with with several advocacy organizations, such as the ACLU, Americans For Prosperity, Project Return, and Think Tennessee support a new bill that would make the voter restoration process much easier. The bill removes financial obligations and streamlines the administrative process. It puts the burden on the State rather than the individual.
On Wednesday, the Tennessee State Senate will vote on Senate Bill 0589/House Bill 0547, a bill that will move Tennessee one step closer to making it easier for those who have paid their debt to society to vote. It is imperative that Tennesseans hold elected officials responsible and support this bill. The erosion of voting rights for any demographic is unjust, and it is especially troubling when minority communities are disproportionately affected. We will be at the hearing on Tuesday, March 26 at 8:00 a.m., and we hope you’ll join us. You can also call the State Senators on the committee. It takes action from all of us.