MOORE: Regaining voting rights for felons is challenging but worthwhile

May 31, 2010
Linda A. Moore

More than 30 years ago, before Stevie Moore was an activist, he did time for selling drugs.

It took several convictions before the founder and president of the anti-violence campaign Freedom From Unnecessary Negatives realized he "wasn't smarter than the system."

Getting out meant living a better life and setting a good example for his then young sons.

So Moore had his right to vote restored.

"When I got out of jail, I got custody of my boys and I raised them for eight years before I got remarried," Moore said. "It's so important that you correct it, to try to set an example for your children."

In 2003, Moore's 23-year-old son Prentice Moore was shot to death. The grieving father focused his energies on the community with Freedom From Unnecessary Negatives. In 2007, he went to Washington to receive the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for Outstanding Public Service.

The Tennessee Department of State reports that in 2009, 736 Tennesseans regained their voting rights, compared with 2,536 in 2008.

Stanley Lipford, county corrections division deputy administrator of re-entry services, said typically it's the older inmates who want information about voting.

"The younger guys, they never utilized the right to vote," Lipford said.

In March, a U.S. House of Representatives judiciary subcommittee held a hearing on restoring the voting rights of those with felony convictions for federal elections.

"Nationally, we're talking about 5.3 million people who can't vote, 4 million of (whom) are not incarcerated and 2.1 million who are no longer under any supervision," said Rachel Bloom, advocacy and policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union.

State laws on regaining voting rights vary.

In Maine and Vermont, felons can vote in prison. In Virginia and Kentucky, convicted felons can never vote unless the governor restores the right.

In Arkansas, those with felony convictions are allowed to vote after their sentence is complete.

Mississippi lists 21 felonies, including murder, rape and perjury, that result in the forfeiture of voting rights. Restoration requires an executive pardon or legislation introduced in the individual's name and passed by two-thirds of the Legislature.

In Tennessee, having voting rights restored depends upon the crime committed and the year of the conviction, Bloom said.

Those convicted of a felony after 1981 lose the right to vote. Some convictions, like murder, result in permanent loss of the right.

There are no voting restrictions on felony convictions between Jan. 15, 1973, and May 17 1981.

However, the state has a list of crimes -- including bigamy, incest, sodomy and buggery -- that result in the loss of voting rights if they occurred before 1971.

In Tennessee, to have voting rights restored, a person convicted of a felony must acquire a certificate of restoration, available online or at the county election commission.

That form must be completed by a parole or probation officer and a Circuit or Criminal Court clerk.

The form is then returned to the Shelby County Election Commission and reviewed by the state election commission.

If it's approved, the applicant can register to vote.

"Imagine, you're someone who is incarcerated and you don't have the best reading skills and we're asking them to fill out all this paperwork and to go to all these places," Bloom said.

In addition, ex-offenders are required to settle court costs, restitution and back child support.

Combined with the difficulty some ex-cons have finding work, and the $45 a month they must pay to be on probation, the financial challenges can be overwhelming, Moore said.

"All those things keep guys from coming forward and trying to get their life back," Moore said.

"What I try to do is tell these guys, 'When you get off probation, get your rights restored, if nothing else for your own dignity,'" he said.

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Voting Rights Restoration in Tennessee: For information, go to the Tennessee Department of State's website at Click elections, followed by voter info.