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PLN associate editor interviewed in article re voting rights for ex-felons

Tennessean, Jan. 1, 2008.
PLN associate editor interviewed in article re voting rights for ex-felons - Tennessean 2008

July 2, 2008

Tennessee felons want voting rights back

Presidential race generates more interest

Staff Writer

Tennessee is on track this year to double the number of felons who saw their voting rights restored, a sign some experts and ex-offenders say demonstrates an eagerness to vote in November's historic presidential election.

And, if a pending voting rights lawsuit succeeds, the number of people banned from voting after serving their sentences could shrink even further. The suit challenges the constitutionality of Tennessee's felon voting rights law, which bars ex-offenders from voting if they owe child support or court-ordered restitution.

Preliminary motions will be heard in a Nashville federal courtroom on July 25.

The increased pursuit of voting rights and lawsuit take on new urgency leading up to a presidential election that will include the nation's first black major party nominee. African-Americans, disproportionately arrested, charged and convicted of crimes, are a major part of the surge to get their rights restored, observers say.

Louis Horton, a Nashville man convicted of burglary, is one of an estimated 90,000 adults in Tennessee and 5.3 million nationwide whose criminal histories make him ineligible to vote, according to the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project.

"I been saying every vote counts," said Horton, who is African-American. "Now, I don't know that I would vote for Obama strictly because he's a black man. I like what he has to say. …

"The only thing I can say for sure is this is a year where it would be nice to stick my vote in there, too."

Horton, 20, served three months in jail and two years of probation.

He earned his GED, has a job at Taco Bell and dreams of an apprenticeship and higher wages.

He went to get a state-issued ID shortly after his release and told the clerk he would like to register to vote. Horton received a letter telling him he isn't eligible. About $4,000 in court-ordered restitution and fees are standing in his way.

Vote regained

Between Jan 1. and June 24 this year, 469 felons requested and received a restoration of their voting rights, according to the Tennessee Secretary of State's Office, which processes applications.

That figure is twice the number of people who had their voting rights restored
by about the same time last year. In all of 2007, 544 Tennesseans had their voting rights restored.

The office doesn't track data on how many were denied.

Anecdotal evidence shows similar surges in other states. Rhode Island, Maryland and Florida all recently loosened restrictions on ex-offender voting, prompting increased public attention and targeted registration drives, said Marc Mauer, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project, a national organization that works to draw attention to inequities in criminal justice.

Felon disenfranchisement policies disproportionately affect African-Americans because the black rate of incarceration in the United States is more than triple the general population's, Mauer said. Nationwide, one in every eight black men over the age of 18 is not eligible to vote, he said.

Mauer said presidential elections "provide a spark" for people to seek restoration of their voting rights, but there isn't any clear evidence having a black candidate is driving more felons to do so. Others see a distinct connection.

At Aphesis House, a network of transitional living homes for ex-offenders, men have discussed voting rights in group sessions aimed to get them thinking about the world in a positive way, said James Settles, a felon who founded and manages the network.

"It's like a God thing, a full circle thing," he said. "We have a black man, Obama, that could lead a country that once enslaved people like him. I think some of the men would like to take part, experience that vote. But they've got a whole lot of things in their way."

Suit objects to law

Tennessee is one of 48 states that strips felons of voting rights and one of 11 that does not automatically restore those rights when an individual completes his or her sentence and any probation and parole.

And that, the people behind the suit say, is fundamentally unfair.

The requirement that felons pay all restitution and child support before voting comes dangerously close to a poll tax, said Nancy Abudu, an Atlanta-based attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project who is representing the three men involved in the suit.

The lawsuit names the governor, the state's coordinator of elections and election administrators in Shelby, Madison and Davidson counties.

The state Attorney General's Office contends Tennessee's law is constitutional because felons have no "fundamental right to vote," and the state has an "interest in protecting the ballot," according a 2006 opinion.

The Attorney General's Office declined Monday to comment on the case pending in federal court.

Plaintiff Alex Friedmann said he feels an urgency to get his rights restored, but it's about more than one election.

"The goal for me would be to make systemic change," he said.

Between 1987 and 1991, Friedmann, who is white, was convicted of assault with intent to attempt to commit murder, armed robbery and attempted aggravated robbery. He served 10 years in state and county jails. Today, he's associate editor of Prison Legal News, a newspaper that circulates throughout Tennessee's corrections and law enforcement communities.

He said two things kept him from checking into his voting rights sooner. First, he had more pressing challenges to face when he was released. Then he learned there weren't court records of how much restitution he owed and to whom.

"When you get out, your priorities are to find a place to live, earn an income, and if you are like most people, get your personal life in order … repair relationships with your family," Friedmann said.

"Voting rights generally don't figure in until you have reached a certain point of stability."

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