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Tennessee Bill Would Restore Felons' Voting Rights

More than 8 percent of the state's population is currently disenfranchised.

A new bill in Tennessee proposes to restore voting rights to hundreds of thousands of convicted felons.

State Sen. Steven Dickerson (R–Nashville) and state Rep. Michael Curcio (R–Dickson) introduced the legislation. If successful, ex-felons would immediately regain voting rights "upon receipt of a pardon or completion of any sentence of incarceration, parole, or probation," with the exception of those convicted of murder, aggravated rape, treason, or voter fraud.

The current law is asinine. There are 320,000 Tennesseans with prior convictions who can't vote—which amounts to more than 8 percent of the population. Those convicted of felony offenses after May 18, 1981 can petition for their right to vote, but "it's such a difficult process that almost nobody actually does it," Dickerson tells The Hill. Everyone convicted between January 15, 1973 and May 17, 1981 can vote without a single precondition, but those convicted before that date for a range of random offenses—including bigamy, buggery, and bribery—are out of luck.

If Tennessee legislators were to approve this bill, they would be following closely on the heels of Florida, where voters restored rights to 1.4 million felons in the November 2018 elections.

Many felony voter restrictions are a remnant of the "black codes," which were laws that targeted African Americans and enshrined voter disenfranchisement into state constitutions shortly after slaves were freed in 1865. Florida, for instance, passed a litany of those laws, creating ambiguous crimes that blacks were often falsely accused of (e.g., "disobedience") and slapping voter bans on those convicted of minor offenses.

To this day, 12 states permanently bar ex-felons from ever voting again. Some only do so for certain crimes, while Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia enforce a lifelong ban. That includes a slew of nonviolent transgressions, including tax evasion and drug dealing, as well as some DUIs. Twenty-two states still block those on parole or probation.

Tennessee's disenfranchisement practices aren't as grounded in racism as those of neighboring states, notes Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. Shortly after the Civil War, closely contested elections in the state incentivized political candidates to court black voters. But the law in its current form is now "one of the strictest in the nation," he says, as it builds in financial impediments to regaining the right to vote. It is also the only state that requires a convicted felon be up to date on child support.

Ex-felons already face roadblocks when seeking employment, housing, and public benefits—all of which have serious implications for financial viability. An offender's bank account is often the last and most prominent barrier to participating in the democratic process, even after they've already paid the price with their sentence. And with such a persistent stigma, many ex-felons offend again. According to a study published in the University of California-Berkeley's La Raza Law Journal, states which permanently bar certain felons from voting have "significantly higher repeat offense rates" than those that don't, as disenfranchisement creates "a permanent criminal underclass of outcasts."

Photo Credit: GARY I ROTHSTEIN/UPI/Newscom

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Russia is probably just going to make them vote wrong anyway.

  • Hugh Akston||

    with the exception of those convicted of murder, aggravated rape, treason, or voter fraud.

    I'm 104% certain that there are really good reasons for each of these exceptions.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    On the voter fraud question, it just means no Russians.

  • John||

    I have a hard time believing that not being able to vote has an effect on recidivism. The La Raza article just gets the causation backwards and shows that the state is barring the right felons.

    The problem is that we have too many crimes defined as felonies. I have no problem with someone guilty of a minor crime being given the franchise back. But, anyone who commits an act of violence against someone or commits serious theft has forfeited their right to have a say in society by victimizing others.

  • Mongo||

    I don't think voting or not voting has any relationship with a crime. Many people have no interest in voting.

  • John||

    I think if you victimize other people, you have no right to vote and assume any say in how things are run.

  • Mongo||

    They probably don't consider it much of a punishment. Spending time in a cage has more effect on them.

  • JWatts||

    I've got a buddy that served 2 years for an EPA asbestos violation. He's a resident of TN and can't vote.

  • John||

    Your buddy not voting is the problem not some scumbag who robbed someone.

  • Tony||

    People who are put in cages by the state have more of a stake in their government than most.

    Stop being a dickweasel.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    What if you're guilty of victimizing your community through your previous voting record? That's a crime, right?

  • Juice||

    +1 Lysander Spooner

  • AlgerHiss||

    Of course, no mention of restoring firearm rights.

    If I trust you with a firearm, I trust you with a ballot.

    If I don't trust you with a firearm, I sure as Hell don't trust you with a ballot.

  • John||

    Firearm ownership is necessary for your human right of self defense. That is more important than voting. I would give them gun ownership rights back before I let them vote.

  • Brett Bellmore||

    They want to maximize the number of voters who won't vote against gun control because they're not allowed to own guns anyway.

    Basically, once you're an adult, if you're trusted to be out in public, you should be trusted with a gun, because if you mean to harm anybody, you're going to be able to get one anyway, and in any case won't lack for ways to hurt people.

    If you think a criminal is still a risk for violent crimes, why are you letting him out of prison, anyway?

  • Tony||

    You three have like nubbin dicks, right?

  • vek||

    Many states restore firearms rights for felons either under the same conditions, or sometimes as the very same process, as voting rights. Some definitely do not. It kinds of sucks for people if their state is screwed, because they could move to another state and be able to own guns again legally. It's a weird deal.

    Personally, I don't think non violent felonies should lose people EITHER right really.

  • JWatts||

    "According to a study published in the University of California-Berkeley's La Raza Law Journal"

    Do we take seriously studies from a blatantly Racist source? What does the Klan say?

  • Ray McKigney||

    Who is this "Tennessee Bill" of whom you speak?

  • Juice||

    8% are felons? Goddamn that's either too many damned violent assholes or too many damned laws.

  • vek||

    Probably a bit of both. It is Tennessee!

  • Crusty Juggler||

    So we have FELONS who BROKE THE LAW, and these LIBS not only want to set them free, they want their vote as well? Seems like a SCAM to me, and an obvious one at that.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    We need to give them the freedom to not vote.

  • Eddy||

    Incidentally, felon disenfranchisement was contemplated in the 14th Amendment, not from bias against black felons, but in order to allow for taking votes away from ex-Confederates.

    Another interesting fact: When Jim Crow Mississippi was concocting excuses to take votes away from black people, they did not disenfranchise *all* felons, just those who committed what the solons considered "black" crimes. They let rapists and murderers vote because those were deemed "white" crimes.

  • gah87||

    Speaking of disenfranchisement, Maine decides all registered libertarians are no longer registered libertarians.
    And New York prevents voting in primaries unless one registers for the party, even though the state legislature is 80% Democrat, and the NYC council is 94% Democrat. Essentially not being allowed to vote in the Democratic primary nullifies one's vote, since that's the only election that matters in most districts in NY state.

  • vek||

    This is one of those things were practical vs moral come a bit against each other.

    Violent criminals, probably shit people for the most part. Some might really turn around and become awesome people, but most probably just become barely tolerable people at best.

    Other BS things that are felonies but aren't actually serious crimes, a lot of those people are probably okay people across the board.

    In some ways, just barring the whole lot of them probably keeps a lot of shitty people voting in shitty ways... But it is also kind of unfair, sort of.

    As mentioned above, firearms rights are probably MORE important than voting rights really, and those get shit on harder than voting in most states laws.

    I'm going to give the nod towards restoring rights, even though most of these people are probably voting for stupid shit that I'm against... But only just.

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