Keedran Franklin fielded beverage requests Thursday morning from the back of his mobile coffee business, The Check In, parked at Glenview Community Center.
It was the last day of early voting, and Franklin, 34, had been at the South Memphis polling place since 8 a.m. He was happily serving free coffee, teas and juice to the stream of people as part of a get-out-the-vote event sponsored by SisterReach, a reproductive justice organization.
A woman approached asking for orange juice. Franklin shook his head. It was nearly noon and the juice was gone. She consulted the menu board, and settled on green tea.
After the woman was served, Franklin hopped from the back of the truck and strode through the drizzling rain toward the door of the center. He had served voters, and now it was time for him to cast his ballot — his first since the state reinstated his right to vote.
Franklin, who also has a storefront in Whitehaven, officially regained his right to vote in Tennessee two weeks ago, a right he’d lost after he pleaded guilty in 2019 to a felony drug charge.
Franklin is among only 3,415 ex-offenders to have their voting rights restored in Tennessee between 2016 and 2020, according to a study released by The Sentencing Project this month (due to an error, the current version of the report has an incorrect number listed for reenfranchised Tennesseans during this period; the report is being updated). That represents less than 1% of the about 360,000 Tennesseans who are disenfranchised after completing their sentences.
During that period, some states – like Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia – restored the voting rights of tens or even hundreds of thousands of convicted felons, but did so through “executive orders that re-enfranchised large categories of people who had completed their sentences,” according to the study.
In Tennessee, about 9% of the eligible voting population, or about 450,000 residents (including those incarcerated), is disenfranchised, said the lead author of the report, Christopher Uggen. Tennessee is surpassed only by Mississippi, where over 10% of the voting age population is ineligible to vote.
The numbers are even worse for Black Tennesseans: More than one in five (21.5%) Black people of voting age in the state are disenfranchised. And, according to the report, about one in 10 Latinx Tennesseans of voting age are disenfranchised, by far the highest rate in the country, followed by Arizona, with about a 7% Latinx disenfranchisement rate.
By contrast, only about 6.7% of non-Black voters in Tennessee are disenfranchised. Despite comprising 16.4% of the Tennessee voting age population, Black people represent 38.8% of the state’s disenfranchised population.
In Shelby County, about 54% of the population, or 509,000 people, is Black, while about 6.6% of the county is Latinx. While Uggen said it’s hard to track disenfranchisement on a county level, Shelby County’s high Black population suggests an equally high disenfranchisement rate.
Voter suppression tactics
To voting rights advocates, the effect is reminiscent of explicit historical disenfranchising maneuvers against Black Americans.
“I feel like this is a voter suppression tactic that is not much different from the literacy tests that we saw in the [1940s] and [1950s],” said lawyer Kamilah Turner, who does pro bono work restoring the rights of ex-offenders. “It’s not much different from all these other ways that have been used to stop people from voting.”
Uggen, also a professor of sociology and law at the University of Minnesota, agreed. “Felon disenfranchisement came a little before some of the other Jim Crow measures and other restrictions on the franchise like poll taxes and grandfather laws, but [it has] persisted longer,” he said.
In Tennessee, one of 11 states with laws that automatically strip the voting rights of felons, the rights only can be restored by the state if the ex-offender requests it and qualifies or through executive action. Of the 39 other states that allow offenders or ex-offenders to vote, only Maine and Vermont enfranchise currently incarcerated people.
Those with certain felony convictions since 1981 — including voter fraud, treason, some violent and sexual crimes and certain felonies involving bribery or misconduct by public officials — can’t request reenfranchisement at all in Tennessee. For those who are eligible, a probation or parole officer or a criminal court clerk must fill out a short form for the prospective voter, and then the Secretary of State’s office will review their case. Also, the ex-offender he or she must have paid off all legal and court fees and fines, any owed restitution and must be up to date on child support payments.
That’s where Derrick Sprouse, 57, hit a wall. In 1985, Sprouse was convicted of a felony after he was arrested for stealing from the Target where he worked in shipping and receiving, he said.
He was sentenced to a year of probation, and, like all convicted felons in Tennessee, lost his right to run for public office, be an executor and vote. For years, he thought about trying to restore his voting rights but the hurdles seemed too large.
With the help of Just City, a local criminal justice reform organization, Sprouse was able to determine what fees he owed, and paid off the outstanding $197. Then he went to fill out his voter registration form, where a clerk asked if he owed child support. When he said he was in arrears, she said he was ineligible to restore his rights.
Sprouse was baffled. “I was trying to ask her, what does child support have to do with voting?”
Although MLK50 was not able to verify how much back child support he owes, Sprouse believes it’s around $14,000, which he’s been paying off for seven or eight years at $50 a month. While he has a steady, full-time job as a contractor, he knows at that rate, it will take him decades to pay it off, if ever.
“It just feels like you’re not a real citizen…,” Sprouse said. “I’ve been working for the last nine years, I fill out my 1099s, I pay taxes. It just don’t feel right.”
Tennessee is the only state in the nation that requires ex-offenders to be current on child support payments, according to ThinkTennessee, a non-partisan nonprofit think tank.
Franklin owed money too – about $3,000 in court fees, though he thinks only about $1,000 was holding him up from restoring his rights. He didn’t have the money to pay it, so Turner took his case pro bono, helping him navigate the legal system. After a petition and a hearing, a judge declared Franklin indigent, which allowed him to apply to have his rights restored without paying the fees.
All those steps convinced Franklin that the process is too difficult, too demanding and too costly for too many people.
“There’s so many layers of voter suppression, it’s like it’s a business to keep people from restoring their voting rights,” Franklin said.
Regaining voting rights
Judges can ultimately decide to waive the court fees, and sometimes they do, but they don’t have to, Turner said. And in her experience, most people who want to restore their voting rights owe money.
Help for those disenfranchised
Whether a person in Tennessee can vote can be confusing. It depends on the year of their conviction, what the were convicted of, if they can pay their debts, and whether they’re still incarcerated.
Campaign Legal Center assists those with convictions through the voting rights restoration process. For more information, visit their site and see a list of documents to help get the process started.
“Everybody who comes to me to have their rights restored has owed money. Everybody. One hundred percent,” Turner said, estimating she’s helped 15 to 20 people regain the right to vote over the past two and a half years. Legal fees pile up, she said, and incarcerated people especially can have difficulty paying child support.
Some states and counties are addressing the problem. In Nashville, Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk Howard Gentry’s office has been working to streamline the restoration process for felons; since February they’ve sent documentation for 531 felons to the election commission.
Restoring the right to vote is simpler than restoring the other citizenship rights felons lose, including the right to be an executor and the right to run for public office, said Josh Spickler, Just City’s executive director. To regain full rights, ex-offenders typically need the help of an attorney, as the process requires drafting pleadings, setting court dates and calling witnesses.
And complicating matters further, not all people convicted of felonies are subject to the same disenfranchisement in Tennessee. Those with felony convictions before 1973 still have the right to vote, unless their conviction was among a list of 21 offenses, including bigamy, bribery, burglary, rape, sodomy and perjury. People with convictions between 1973 and May 1981 are eligible to vote, irrespective of the crime. And those convicted after May 1981 are automatically disenfranchised and must pursue their own restoration.
In the 1980s, then state Sen. Steve Cohen proposed and helped pass state legislation to – he hoped – easily restore the voting rights for convicted felons. The law was made more stringent in the 1990s, but in 2006, Cohen helped to pass the law as it stands today (though he rejects the child support obligation, which he says should never have been added).
Voting is “a duty and it’s a right,” said Cohen, now a U.S. congressman representing Tennessee’s 9th District. “It should be considered a right and it shouldn’t be taken away except in extreme circumstances.”
State Sen. Raumesh Akbari and Rep. Antonio Parkinson, both Democrats, are in the early stages of crafting a bill that would automatically restore voting rights for felons who’ve completed their sentences, Akbari said. Other legislative efforts have stalled in the past, but some advocates still are optimistic.
Ernie Hilliard, the acting co-chair for Race and Class Equity in the Justice System Task Force at the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope, believes the legislative system is the most effective way to improve the reentry process for offenders.
“Voting rights is something that, right now of course, in an election cycle, is really top of mind, and so we think that the public as well as our elected officials would be more receptive to this issue now,” he said.
By the time Franklin left the polling booth, having voted for former Vice President Joe Biden in the presidential race, the drizzle had momentarily stopped. He wasn’t particularly excited about the election or even about politics. But he was proud to have his rights back.
“The first time voting since having my rights restored feels accomplished,” he said, “because there’s so many people who’ve tried and have not been able to restore their right to vote.”
Hannah Grabenstein is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.
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