Leola Scott recently decided to become a more active citizen. The 55-year-old Dyersburg, Tennessee resident was pushed into action after her son was stabbed to death and no one was charged.
In August, Scott attempted to register to vote. It was then that she learned that she was not allowed to vote because she had been convicted of non-violent crimes almost 20 years ago.
One in five black Tennesseans are like Scott: barred from voting due to a prior felony conviction. Indeed, Tennessee appears to be starving a much higher proportion of its black residents — 21% — than any other state.
The figure comes from a new analysis by nonprofit advocacy group The Sentencing Project, which found that Mississippi ranks a distant second, just under 16% of its voting-eligible black population. Tennessee also has the highest rate of disenfranchisement among its Latino community – just over 8%.
While states across the country have moved to give those convicted of crimes a chance to vote again, Tennessee has gone the other way. Over the past two decades, the state has made it harder for residents to reclaim their right to vote. In particular, lawmakers added requirements that residents must first pay court costs and restitution and that they are current on child support.
Tennessee is now the only state in the country that requires those convicted of crimes to be current on child support payments before they can vote again.
The state makes available little data on who lost the right to vote and why. Residents who might qualify to vote again must first navigate a confusing and opaque bureaucracy.
Scott says she paid her legal fees years ago. But when she took a Restoration of Voting Rights form to the county clerk claiming she had paid, the clerk told her she still had an outstanding balance of $2,390.
“It was like the air had been pushed out of me,” she said. “I did everything I was supposed to. When I got in trouble, I owned it. I paid my debt to society. I was proud to pay it all.
Scott has no receipts to verify her payments because she made them so long ago, she said. And there’s no way for her to fight off what she believes to be a clerical error.
She is now a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the Tennessee NAACP challenging the state’s voting rights restoration process. In court documents, the state has denied claims that the restoration process is inaccessible.
Overall, according to The Sentencing Project, about 470,000 Tennessee residents are barred from voting. About 80% have already served their sentence but are disenfranchised because they have a permanent disabling conviction – such as murder or rape – or because they owe court costs or child support or have lost in the system trying to get their vote back.
Over the past two years, about 2,000 Tennesseans have successfully appealed to have their right to vote restored.
Persons convicted after 1981 must obtain a Certificate of Restoration of Voting Rights form signed by a probation or parole officer or other prison authority for each conviction. The form is then given to a clerk who certifies that the person has no court costs. Then it is sent back to the local election commission, which then sends it to the state election commission for final approval. (The rules on restoring the vote have been revised several times, so older convictions are subject to different rules.)
Republican Cameron Sexton, speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives, said those convicted of crimes should have to pay court costs and child support before voting.
“If someone isn’t paying or is behind on their child support payments, that’s a problem,” he told ProPublica. “It’s a problem for this child, it’s a problem for this family, not having the things that they agreed to in court to help them with this child.”
Asked that Tennessee is the only state to require child support payments to be up to date before voting rights can be restored, Sexton said, “Maybe Tennessee is doing it right and the others don’t.”
A 2019 report from the Tennessee Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights Commission found that repayment requirements have been particularly onerous for women, the poor, and communities of color. The report also notes that Tennessee has increasingly imposed court fees “as a way to fund the state’s courts and criminal justice system.”
Georgia previously demanded the payment of restitution and fines in order to restore the right to vote. But in 2020, the office of the Georgian secretary of state clarified that anyone who has served their sentence can vote, even if they owe court fees or other debts that were not incurred as part of their sentence. .
Disenfranchisement doesn’t just impact the lives of individual voters – it can also impact elections. This is especially true for multiracial communities in Tennessee, according to Sekou Franklin, professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University. He pointed to county-level races that were decided by a few dozen votes.
“There are real lost votes that can shape elections,” Franklin said.
Black Tennesseans, even those who were not enslaved, were disenfranchised for centuries. In 1835, the new state constitution removed the franchise from free black men, who had been able to vote under the previous constitution. It also stipulated that anyone convicted of an “infamous” crime – a list that included theft, bigamy and horse theft – would lose their right to vote, often permanently.
The civil rights laws of the 1960s reopened voting for Tennesseans. But soon, lawmakers began adding provisions that disenfranchised those convicted of crimes. Lawmakers have updated the statute every few years, adding to the list of crimes that permanently bar someone from voting. The result is a convoluted list of eligibility criteria for reinstatement of suffrage that depends on what a person was convicted of and when the conviction occurred.
The reality of disenfranchisement in Tennessee recently drew national attention around the case of a Memphis woman, Pamela Moses. Three years ago, she got her probation officer’s approval to vote again. The next day, the Tennessee Department of Corrections claimed the officer had made a mistake. Prosecutors then accused Moïse of lying on an election document. She was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison, but a judge later overturned the conviction.
Tennessee lawmakers from both parties tried, unsuccessfully, to make it easier for residents to get their vote back.
In 2019, two Republican lawmakers sponsored a bill that would have automatically restored people’s right to vote after their sentences. He was backed by a bipartisan coalition of civil rights advocates, including the libertarian group Americans for Prosperity and the Tennessee American Civil Liberties Union. But he never gained traction with lawmakers.
In 2021, two Democrats sponsored another bill that would have granted automatic restoration of the vote, but that bill also died. The sponsors said the Republican supermajority in the Tennessee Legislature simply didn’t want to take it on.
“We said we wanted to reform criminal justice, but all we’ve done is really nibble at the edges,” Sen. Brenda Gilmore told ProPublica, referring to a bill she co-sponsored. with a fellow Democrat.
Dawn Harrington, the founder of Free Hearts, an organization that supports formerly incarcerated women, also advocated for the 2021 bill.
During a 2008 trip to New York, Harrington carried a Tennessee-licensed firearm. Because New York does not recognize licenses from other states, she was convicted of a charge of possession of firearms.
After serving a one-year sentence at Rikers Island, she returned to Tennessee and set out to have her rights restored. Tennessee requires the incarceration agency to sign the rights restoration form, but Harrington struggled to find someone in New York willing to sign it. After nine years, his rights were finally restored in 2020.
“I don’t know if you know the show ‘The Wiz’, but I literally slowed down on the road,” Harrington said of his voting rights restored. “I Danced. I was so happy I cried. I felt all the emotions. You never know how much something means to you until it’s taken away from you.