Lee Davis: Study Highlights Harm Done By Felon Disenfranchisement Laws

Monday, September 24, 2012 - by Lee Davis
Lee Davis
Lee Davis
This election year voting rights laws have turned into a heated issue as civil rights groups and state legislatures fight over photo ID requirements. While that issue has received a lot of attention, the larger problem of felon disenfranchisement laws has attracted less concern despite the potential millions of votes at stake.

According to the nonprofit organization VOTE, individuals in Tennessee who have been convicted of a felony are ineligible to vote while incarcerated, on parole, or on probation. Those people convicted since 1981- except for some felonies such as murder, rape, treason and voter fraud - may apply to the Board of Probation and Parole to have their voting rights restored once their sentence is completed.
However, their felony charge remains on their records even if their application is approved. As of July 1 of this year, one-time felons also can restore their rights by expunging the charge from their records.

While the law in Tennessee is relatively straightforward, that is not the case across the country. Instead, a patchwork of restrictions exist which prevent nearly 5.85 million people with felony convictions from voting. A report released by The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C., criminal justice reform advocacy group, reveals that the laws also disproportionately affect some races more than others.

Highlighting the varied laws, a felon in Maine is allowed to vote from prison using an absentee ballot, while a felon convicted of the same crime in Florida might never be allowed to vote, even after having been released from prison. Laws vary widely across the country dealing with how felons lose their voting rights and under what circumstances they can be restored. In Mississippi, there are 22 categories of crime that result in disenfranchisement. Timber larceny is included on the list while manslaughter is not. Adding even more hoops to jump through, the state laws say that felons who want their voting rights back must be approved by a two-thirds vote in both houses of the legislature, and the governor can then either sign or veto the measure.

Those people who are eager for legal reform argue that voting is a crucial step in integrating criminals back into their communities. They point out that voting is a critical part of citizenship and disenfranchising millions of people is not a good way to make people productive members of society.

Advocates for legal change point out that minorities are far more likely to be affected by these laws than white criminals. Given that black people make up 12.6 percent of the U.S. population, but 37.9 percent of those in federal and state prisons, an overwhelmingly large number of black people are denied the right to vote when compared to other races.

Disenfranchisement also impacts the national political debate by removing millions of possible constituents from the voter rolls. Things like welfare reform and progressive taxation are all issues that affect this group of citizens, but their voices will not be heard given current laws.

Attempts have been made to rectify the situation, with legislation being proposed in Congress to create a national standard. Just this year Democrats introduced the Voter Empowerment Act which proposed sweeping changes in how federal elections are conducted and would let felons who are out of prison vote in federal elections. The measure went nowhere as politicians eager to seem tough on crime defeated it. 

(Lee Davis is a Chattanooga attorney who can be reached at lee@davis-hoss.com or at 266-0605.)


Techtown Announces Permanent Home In Downtown Chattanooga

TechTown, a technology and entrepreneurial innovation center for children, will make its permanent home at 325 Market St. in downtown Chattanooga. "Centrally located, historic, and full of possibilities, we couldn’t have imagined a better home for TechTown," said Paul Cummings, founder. “When we were looking for a location for TechTown, we wanted a creative space, and something ... (click for more)

Attorney General Slatery Names Solicitor General

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery announced that Andrée Sophia Blumstein will join the office as solicitor general.   Mrs. Blumstein will oversee appellate litigation in state and federal courts, review written opinions, and advise the attorney general. “I could not be more pleased that Andrée has accepted this important appointment,” Attorney General Slatery ... (click for more)

Mayor Berke, Chattanooga Police Department, And Community Members Reach Out To Group Members To End Violence

The city of Chattanooga held a call-in on Thursday night, as part of the Violence Reduction Initiative. Dozens of law enforcement officials, community members, social service providers and clergy gathered to deliver a message to over 20 members of violent groups in Chattanooga. Family members of the probationers watched the call-in from another building. Although the call-in was ... (click for more)

Tribute Service For Luther Masingill Held At Historic Engel Stadium

It took a place as big as historic Engel Stadium for Chattanooga to say goodbye to their beloved Luther. Hundreds came Thursday afternoon to pay tribute to Luther Masingill who died early Monday morning after a radio career that spanned an amazing 74 years. It was clear from all who spoke that he was considered not only a radio personality, but also a role model. One after ... (click for more)

Chairs Cost How Much?

Many times while growing up, I would go to the store with my parents. More often than not, I would see something I wanted, and ask my parents to buy it for me. More often than not, they said no. “Why?” I asked. “Son, money doesn’t grow on trees.” That’s a phrase I’m sure many of us have heard more than once over the course of our lives. However, I have since learned that they were ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: Pete Carroll’s Philosophy

Pete Carroll, the head football coach of the Seattle Seahawks, has a deep belief that he can change people by simply listening to them and then making suggestions on how they can get what they really want. If the people Carroll who can influence win, Carroll wins, and remember his team won last year’s Super Bowl with his methods.   When asked for example, here is what ... (click for more)