Past crimes cost many their right to vote in Tennessee

Past crimes cost many their right to vote in Tennessee

November 5th, 2012 by Todd South in Local Regional News


Tennesseeans who lost their right to vote after criminal convictions but have restored the right

2000: 137

2001: 135

2002: 523

2003: 340

2004: 577

2005: 299

2006: 502

2007: 543

2008: 2,483

2009: 682

2010: 729

2011: 373

2012: 787

Source: Tennessee Department of State

Nearly a decade ago, Kierre Kinamore hung out with the wrong friend at the wrong time and got caught up in a robbery.

Kinamore, then 19, pleaded guilty and was placed on probation. He also gave up a lot of rights he hadn't yet used, including the right to vote.

When he finished his probation without problems, officials gave him the paperwork to start reclaiming his voting rights, but work was more of a priority.

"There was no election at the time; it was something put in the back of my mind," Kinamore said.

But in the past few months, he started talking politics with friends and hearing a lot of opinions. He decided that if he was going to have voice, he needed to vote.

Kinamore, who is black, is among the one in five black men in Tennessee who cannot vote because of past criminal convictions. Nearly 6 million people across the United States cannot vote for that reason, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

For decades, the ACLU has pushed to make it easier for people convicted of crimes to regain their right to vote.

Nancy Abudu, with the Atlanta ACLU office, said getting back voting rights helps bring those people back into society.

This year the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers launched a nationwide project to evaluate each state's laws on how convicts can restore their rights.

Even though Tennessee lawmakers in 2006 pased a bill bringing some consistency to the process, the association's researchers labeled Tennessee's myriad laws as "perhaps the most complex and confusing situation in the nation."

The association's executive director, Norman Reimer, said disenfranchising those convicted of crimes creates a problem that all citizens should consider.

"What you're doing is guaranteeing that the country will have a permanent underclass," Reimer said.

The association's state-by-state evaluations and other research will be turned over to Congress to help advise lawmakers how to normalize voting-rights restoration across the country. They expect it to take a couple of years to gather the information.

The number of Tennessee convicts who've been restored their rights each year fluctuated over a decade but spiked in election years. Since 2000, the median number of convicts who've restored their rights is 512, according to Tennessee Department of State figures.

In the 2008 presidential election, 2,483 convicts had their rights restored. So far this year, 787 have reclaimed their right to vote.

Local private attorney Rich Heinsman has helped about a dozen clients regain their rights. He typically files a petition in civil court and contacts the district attorney's office for the county where the crime occurred.

If the prosecutor doesn't object and the convict has stayed out of trouble, then it's a matter of waiting for the judge's decision and then taking the paperwork to the local election commission, he said.

Heinsman said he's puzzled by laws that take away voting rights for many offenses.

"Someone with a fourth-offense DUI certainly has an alcohol problem, but whether they can make an informed judgment on who their councilman should be is another issue," Heinsman said.

He said he was "hard-pressed" to think of a crime in which the person's opinion about elected officials would cease to matter, and he worried about the motivations of lawmakers to take away those rights for seemingly unrelated matters such as criminal convictions.

"If we're going to restrict their right to vote, we must fear their voice. I don't," he said.

Rules on restoring voting rights vary from state to state. Abudu said two states, Maine and Vermont, allow inmates to vote from prison.

U.S. constitutional amendments leave it up to states to decide when people convicted of crimes forfeit certain rights, such as voting, she said.

Kinamore finished his paperwork a few weeks ago and, as of Friday, was waiting for his documents to take to the polls. If the steps he's taken work out as planned, the now 28-year-old will vote in his first presidential election on Tuesday.

"A lot of people say, 'I don't believe my vote even counts,'" Kinamore said. "I try to encourage anyone that I know to go out and vote. You can't really say too much about the way things are going if you're not getting out there to have your voice be heard."