The record-breaking turnout this election may be cause for celebration. However, a report published in October by The Sentencing Project, an incarceration research and advocacy organization, suggests that over 5.2 million voting-age people nationwide did not have their voices heard last week due to a prior felony conviction. In Tennessee alone, over 450,000 voting-age individuals could not vote due to the state’s felony disenfranchisement laws.
These numbers require some context. In 2016, The Sentencing Project estimated that over 6 million people could not exercise their right to vote. Despite the national decrease in disenfranchisement numbers, Tennessee saw an increase of around 30,000 additional individuals from just over 420,000 in 2016. This means that in 2020, one in eleven voting-age Tennesseans cannot vote, making it just one of three states in the country where the disenfranchisement rate exceeds eight percent of the voting age population. The issue also disproportionately affects African Americans in Tennessee where over one in five African Americans is disenfranchised.
Tennessee state law automatically strips anyone convicted of a felony after May 1981 of their voting rights. Upon completion of their sentence, most people with a felony conviction can only have those rights restored by submitting an application to the Secretary of State. However, applicants must jump through several hoops for their application to be approved. All fines and fees stemming from the original legal proceedings must be paid, and some counties require that applicants pay a fee per conviction on their record. Tennessee is also the only state in the country to require that people be up to date on child support payments.
Several organizations around Tennessee launched initiatives to help people navigate the complicated process of voting restoration. Rahim Buford, founder of the Nashville non-profit Unheard Voices Outreach (UVO) and director of the Nashville Community Bail Fund, and Dawn Harrington, co-founder of another Nashville non-profit, Free Hearts, are two Nashville community leaders engaged in this work. Harrington herself recently had her voting rights restored but Buford cannot vote due to a prior felony conviction and will remain ineligible to vote without a change in state laws.
As the law stands, people like Buford convicted of a select list of felonies can never vote again in Tennessee. “We [Unheard Voices Outreach] believe that’s wrong, and we believe that’s wrong because your citizenship is the only thing in America that makes you equal to anybody else. That’s your birthright. And the only reason someone should lose their voting rights is if they commit treason,” Buford said.
Oftentimes, discussions surrounding the legal system assume reference to male incarcerees. As an organization, Free Hearts advocates for the other half of the disenfranchised population, the women and families impacted by incarceration. When it comes to voting, Harrington mentioned that the impact of disenfranchisement on women is largely unknown. “We are trying to dig more into the data. A lot of the data is not available so right now what we have is anecdotal,” she said. “The Sentencing Project says that in the US, one fifth of disenfranchised people are women. We do know that, with the base [of Free Hearts being] mostly women, the majority of the people in our base can’t vote. So it’s definitely an issue that impacts women greatly, especially black women and Latinx women.”
Tied up with the issue of disenfranchisement is the use of language. “It’s almost ridiculous to say it the way that we’re saying it: voting rights. Because the reality is, in a place like America, a right is something that you cannot take. You can take away a privilege. But rights are not supposed to be up for compromise, period,” Buford said.
Studies in academia attempting to quantify disenfranchisement show the immensely consequential impact the practice can have. A 2002 study by Christopher Uggen, who works with The Sentencing Project to produce their disenfranchisement reports, and Jeff Manza found that even after accounting for party preference and expected turnout rates for different groups of would-be voters, Al Gore would have won the state of Florida, and thereby the presidency, in the 2000 election had the state granted the right to vote to people convicted of felonies.
“These numbers are power that has been trapped, power that has been taken away,” Harrington said of the Sentencing Project report. To her, the numbers also illustrate the tragic and ironic injustice that is felony disenfranchisement. “We’re talking about almost half a million people powerless to elect officials who hold their values or to hold elected officials accountable, including our judges, DAs, and our governor who can decarcerate, and our legislature that makes our laws and throws away the key and the budgets that prioritize incarceration and policing and punishment and deprioritizes actually investing in our community’s success. To me it just reflects a lot of stolen power.”
Looking into the future, Harrington and Buford remain optimistic. For Buford, this means securing his own vote. “Me, personally, I’ve never voted before in my life. But I’m going to work as hard as I can to do so before I die,” he said. For Harrington, a re-enfranchised population will bring momentous change. “I firmly believe that we can build power and once we do, once we are re-enfranchised, we are going to be a powerful voting block that will change the entire fabric of the state and what it looks like.”
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