Leola Scott has decided to do more for her community. The 55-year-old woman from Dyersburg, Tennessee, took action after her son was killed with a knife and no one was charged.
Scott tried to sign up to vote in August. That’s when she found out she can’t vote because nearly 20 years ago, she was convicted of nonviolent crimes that made her a felon.
One out of every five Black Tennesseans, like Scott, can’t vote because they have been convicted of a felony in the past. In fact, it looks like Tennessee disenfranchises 21% of its Black residents, which is more than any other state.
The number comes from a new study by the non-profit advocacy group The Sentencing Project. It found that Mississippi is far behind in second place, with just under 16% of its Black eligible voters in prison. Also, just over 8% of Latinos in Tennessee can’t vote. This is the highest rate in any state.
While most states have moved toward letting people who have been convicted of a felony vote again, Tennessee has moved in the opposite direction. In the past 20 years, the state has made it harder for people to get their voting rights back. In particular, lawmakers have made it so that residents must first pay court costs and restitution and be up to date on child support payments.
Tennessee is now the only state in the country that makes people who have been convicted of a felony pay their back child support before they can vote again.
The state doesn’t give out much information about who has lost their voting rights and why. Residents who might be able to vote again have to first figure out how to get through a confusing and unclear bureaucracy.
Scott says that she paid her court fees a long time ago. But when she took a form to the county clerk to prove that she had paid, the clerk told her she still owed $2,390.
Such a frustrating read, on election day no less:
How Tennessee Disenfranchised 21% of Its Black Citizens https://t.co/H7nAvuCE6K
— Emily Hopkins (@indyemapolis) November 8, 2022
“It felt like someone knocked the wind out of me,” she said. “I did everything I should have done. I took responsibility when I got in trouble. I paid back what I owed to people. I was proud to pay it all back.”
She said that Scott does not have receipts to prove that she paid because she paid so long ago. And she has no way to fight what she thinks is a mistake by a clerk.
She is now a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state’s process for restoring voting rights that were filed by the Tennessee NAACP. In court documents, the state denied claims that the process of restoration is hard to get to.
The Sentencing Project says that about 470,000 people in Tennessee are not allowed to vote as a whole. About 80% of them have already served their time, but they can’t vote because they have a conviction that keeps them from voting forever, like murder or rape, or because they owe court costs or child support, or because they got lost trying to get their vote back.
Over the past two years, about 2,000 Tennesseans have been able to get their right to vote back after a successful appeal.
For each conviction, a person convicted after 1981 must get a Certification of Restoration of Voting Rights form signed by a parole officer, probation officer, or another person in charge of an inmate. The form is then sent to a court clerk, who verifies that the person doesn’t have to pay any court fees.
Then it goes back to the local election commission, which sends it to the state election commission for final approval. (Rules about restoring the right to vote have been changed more than once, so people with older convictions have to follow different rules.)
Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives and Republican Cameron Sexton said that people who have been convicted of felonies should have to pay court costs and child support before they can vote.
“If someone doesn’t pay child support or pays late, that’s a problem,” he told ProPublica. “That’s a problem for that child and that family because they don’t have the things they agreed to in court to help that child.”
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When asked why Tennessee is the only state that requires current child support payments before restoring voting rights, Sexton said, “Maybe Tennessee is doing it right and the other states aren’t.”
Georgia used to make people pay restitution and fines before they could vote again. But in 2020, the Georgia secretary of state’s office made it clear that anyone who has finished their sentence can vote, even if they still owe money for court costs or other debts that were not part of their sentence.
Disenfranchisement doesn’t just affect the lives of the people who lose their right to vote; it can also affect elections. Sekou Franklin, a professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University, says this is especially true for communities with people of different races in Tennessee. He said that some races at the county level have been decided by only a few dozen votes.
Franklin said, “There are real votes that are lost that can change the outcome of elections.”
Black Tennesseans have not been able to vote for hundreds of years, even if they were not slaves. Free Black men could vote before 1835, but the new state constitution took that right away. It also said that anyone convicted of an “infamous” crime, like robbery, bigamy, or stealing a horse, would lose their right to vote, usually for good.
In the 1960s, when civil rights laws were passed, Tennesseans were once again able to vote. But soon, lawmakers started putting back rules that took away the right to vote from people who had been convicted of a felony. Every few years, lawmakers changed the law by adding to the list of crimes that make someone ineligible to vote for life. The result is a complicated list of rules about who can get their voting rights back, depending on what crime they were convicted of and when.
Recently, the case of a Memphis woman named Pamela Moses brought national attention to the fact that some people in Tennessee are not allowed to vote. She got the OK from her probation officer to vote again three years ago. The Tennessee Department of Correction said the officer had made a mistake the next day. Then, the prosecutors said that Moses had lied on an election form. She was found guilty and given a six-year prison sentence, but later a judge threw out the conviction.
Both Democrats and Republicans in Tennessee have tried, but failed, to make it easier for people to get their vote back.
In 2019, two Republican lawmakers tried to pass a bill that would have given people their right to vote back as soon as they finished their sentence. It had support from both liberal and conservative civil rights groups, like Americans for Prosperity and the Tennessee American Civil Liberties Union. But it never caught on with politicians.
In 2021, two Democrats tried to pass another bill that would have given people their right to vote back automatically. That bill, too, did not pass. The people who made the bill said that the Republican majority in Tennessee’s legislature just doesn’t want to deal with it.
“We said we wanted to reform the criminal justice system, but all we’ve done is nibble around the edges,” state Sen. Brenda Gilmore told ProPublica, referring to a bill she and a fellow Democrat-sponsored.
Dawn Harrington, who started an organization called Free Hearts to help women who have been in prison, also pushed for the 2021 bill.
In 2008, when Harrington went to New York City, he took a gun with him that was legal in Tennessee. She was found guilty of having a gun because New York does not accept permits from other states.
She spent a year in prison on Rikers Island and then went back to Tennessee to try to get her rights back. In Tennessee, the person who put the person in jail has to sign the form to get their rights back. Harrington had a hard time finding someone in New York who would sign it. In 2020, after nine years, she finally got her rights back.
“I don’t know if you know the show ‘The Wiz,’ but I literally eased down the road,” Harrington said about getting her voting rights back. “I danced. I cried because I was so happy. I was going through every feeling. You never know how important something is to you until it’s gone.”