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Tennesseans who can’t vote because of felony convictions are challenging state law

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WPLN
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Paige Pfleger
Brandy Tomlinson proudly holds up her sticker after voting for the first time in 8 years.

The polls have only been open for about 15 minutes when Brandy Tomlinson pulls up to her precinct in Southeast Nashville.

“I was up bright and early, ready to go this morning, so I was ecstatic,” Brandy says, as she hops out of her car.

Her excitement is palpable – she cannot hold still.

“I mean, it was like Christmas morning as a child,” she says, smiling. “That’s how I felt this morning. I’m going to get to go vote for the first time in eight years.”

Brandy had her voting rights stripped away when she pleaded guilty to a felony.

Her situation is surprisingly common here in Tennessee. The state has one of the highest rates of voter disenfranchisement in the country for people with felony convictions.

One out of every 13 adults is disenfranchised, according to a new report from the Sentencing Project.

For Black Tennesseans, it’s even worse. One in five can’t vote because of a felony conviction. That’s the highest rate in the country.

All told, there are more than 400,000 Tennesseans who could not have their voices heard at the polls, and some of them may never have the opportunity to vote again.

Brandy, like a lot of disenfranchised folks in the state, didn’t even know she signed away her right to vote. She had no idea until she went to cast her ballot eight years ago.

‘It’s still my voice. And it got heard today.’

Her excited smile fades as she recalls how an election worker told her she could not vote anymore.

“It was very embarrassing,” she says. “And it was heartbreaking to find out that I no longer had a voice in the country that I lived in.”

But this Election Day, things are different.

Brandy finally completed the bureaucratic process of getting her voting rights restored.

She’s one of the lucky few. Only about 450 people have gotten their rights restored in Tennessee so far this year, according to the Secretary of State.

Brandy heads inside her polling place. When she comes back outside a few minutes later, she’s got a huge smile on her face and triumphantly holds up her “I Voted” sticker.

“I feel great,” she says. “So hard to express how I feel right now, on the inside. It’s just I’m joyous and I’m excited. And to have a say … no matter how small it may seem, it’s still my voice. And it got heard today.”

This moment for Brandy is something that a lot of disenfranchised folks won’t experience.
That’s because over the years, Tennessee lawmakers have made it harder for people to get their rights restored, instead of easier.

Tennessee voter turnout fell substantially from 2018 to 2022.
Paige Pfleger
/
WPLN
Only about 450 people had their rights restored in 2022 and could participate in the election.

The first hoop someone needs to jump through is finding out if they qualify, which sounds simple but is actually incredibly convoluted. It depends on what they were charged with and in what year — and the specifics keep on changing.

And some people won’t even make it through that hoop. Someone convicted of rape or murder can’t get their rights back at all.

“You can never vote again for the rest of your life,” says Terrance Akins, an activist who got his rights restored after 17 years behind bars.

He says one of the next hoops dredges up a lot of painful, racist history. Tennessee requires people to pay off their court costs, and restitution.

“Let’s talk about still a poll tax — another form of having to pay to vote,” he says.

And on top of that, Tennessee is the only state that requires people to pay off back child support before they can vote.

‘A benefit to the status quo’

The total bill can amount to thousands of dollars.

Akins says that’s out of reach for so many recently released people, who make a starting wage of 17 cents an hour when they are behind bars.

“When you get out, you’re starting over, trying to get on your feet,” Akins says. “It’s impossible to get out and just pay all that. It is just another voter suppression, just another way for them to suppress the vote.”

That suppression is intentional, says Dawn Harrington.

“There’s a benefit to the status quo of having this amount of people disenfranchised,” she says. It took Harrington nearly a decade to get her voting rights restored.

Her experience inspired her to start her organization, Free Hearts, which helps other formerly incarcerated women do the same — one person at a time.

“The whole landscape of power in this state can change when those close to 500,000 people have been re-enfranchised, when they can participate, when they can elect leadership that reflects our interests.”

About 1.7 million Tennesseans voted during this election, and several of the races were quite close. Harrington says disenfranchised voters could make a difference.

She says she’s got a lot of hope that change may finally be on the horizon in Tennessee. That’s because there are a handful of legal challenges moving through the state, and federal courts.

A few of those suits have the name of a Memphis woman on them — Pamela Moses.

“I wasn’t going to give up without a fight,” Moses says.

Moses’ case is pretty notorious. A probation officer signed off on her paperwork to vote again, even though a prior conviction made her ineligible. Neither Moses nor the officer say they knew that at the time — illustrating the confusion for both individuals and officials when it comes to the state’s voter disenfranchisement rules.

So, Moses was convicted again for lying on an election document. And though those charges were dropped, she is still permanently barred from voting.

Her situation is being used as an example to challenge the constitutionality of felony disenfranchisement.

“People will get their right to vote,” Moses says. “They will either get it in my lifetime, or they’ll get it in yours. But they’ll get it.”

She says even though she can’t vote, this is her way of making sure that her voice is heard.

Paige Pfleger is a reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.
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