Chattanooga Times Free Press

Re­port claims more than one in five Black Ten­nesseans dis­en­fran­chised

- BY KIM­BER­LEE KRUESI

NASHVILLE — More than 20% of Ten­nessee’s Black adults can­not vote be­cause of a felony con­vic­tion, while an es­ti­mated 8% of the state’s over­all adult pop­u­la­tion is dis­en­fran­chised, ac­cord­ing to a newly re­leased re­port.

The re­port, com­piled by non­profit The Sen­tenc­ing Project, was re­cently made pub­lic ahead of Elec­tion Day, Nov. 3. Over­all, the per­cent­age of dis­en­fran­chised peo­ple in the U.S. has dropped in re­cent years, but dis­en­fran­chise­ment rates vary wildly state to state — par­tic­u­larly among racial and eth­nic mi­nori­ties.

“As of 2020, an es­ti­mated 5.17 mil­lion peo­ple are dis­en­fran­chised due to a felony con­vic­tion, a fig­ure that has de­clined by al­most 15% since 2016, as states en­acted new poli­cies to cur­tail this prac­tice,” the re­port stated.

That im­prove­ment comes af­ter a hand­ful of states changed their poli­cies on re- en­fran­chis­ing some non­in­car­cer­ated pop­u­la­tions — such as those on pa­role or pro­ba­tion — and other states over­hauled their pro­cesses for how to re­gain cer­tain civil rights.

No­tably, Florida vot­ers ap­proved a bal­lot ini­tia­tive in 2018 that sought to re­store vot­ing rights post- felony sen­tence. How­ever, The Sen­tenc­ing Project’s re­port noted Florida re­mains the na­tion’s “dis­en­fran­chise­ment leader in ab­so­lute num­bers, with over 1.1 mil­lion peo­ple cur­rently banned from vot­ing” due to peo­ple’s in­abil­ity to pay resti­tu­tion or le­gal fees.

Mean­while, in Alabama and Mis­sis­sippi, more than 8% of each state’s over­all adult pop­u­la­tion is es­ti­mated to be dis­en­fran­chised. That num­ber jumps sig­nif­i­cantly for Black and Latino pop­u­la­tions.

“African Amer­i­can dis­en­fran­chise­ment rates in Ten­nessee and Wy­oming now ex­ceed 20 per­cent of the adult vot­ing age pop­u­la­tion,” the re­port states, adding that more than 36% of Black adults with felony con­vic­tions in Wy­oming are barred from vot­ing.

The re­port also warned that since the coun­try’s Latino pop­u­la­tion has quadru­pled since 1980, it’s likely that pop­u­la­tion will see an “in­creas­ing share of those dis­en­fran­chised due to felony con­vic­tions in com­ing years.”

In Ten­nessee, voter ad­vo­cates have par­tic­u­larly crit­i­cized the state’s strict rules in get­ting vot­ing rights re­stored. Cur­rently, the state re­quires those who have been con­victed of a felony in-state to have fully paid off their resti­tu­tion and le­gal fees — a re­quire­ment that some ar­gue cre­ates an im­pos­si­ble bur­den for those who have been con­victed. Oth­ers ar­gue restor­ing voter rights is a use­ful tool in re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing in­di­vid­u­als af­ter they leave pri­son.

A hand­ful of vot­ing rights groups tried to chal­lenge a por­tion of Ten­nessee’s vot­ing restora­tion rights ear­lier this year, saying the state was im­prop­erly bar­ring some out- of- state felons from vot­ing in the state’s Au­gust pri­mary.

The plain­tiffs had ar­gued that peo­ple who’ve had their vot­ing rights re­stored in the state of their felony con­vic­tion should not have to fol­low Ten­nessee’s ad­di­tional rules on pay­ing resti­tu­tion and le­gal fees. A judge ul­ti­mately de­nied that re­quest.

Ac­cord­ing to the Ten­nessee Sec­re­tary of State’s of­fice, more than 3,400 in­di­vid­u­als with felony con­vic­tions have had their vot­ing rights re­stored since 2016.

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