Last Monday, one of our employees discovered that her voting rights had been re-instated. She brought her Voter Registration Card to show it off to us, and she flashed it around like a $500.00 bill. There was whooping and hollering and rejoicing throughout The House. It was as if the 1920 Women’s Suffrage Movement had marched right through our kitchen.
One-third of our employees at My Cup of Tea have never voted because they have been dragging the shame and baggage of a bad choice from as much as 20 -30 years ago. I thought that reinstatement is automatic after completion of a prison sentence. However, that is not the case.
Maine and Vermont do not strip felons of their voting rights. Sixteen other states reinstate voting rights after a sentence in completed. Twenty-one states automatically reinstate voting rights after the prison term and parole are completed. Tennessee, along with 10 other states, does not automatically reinstate voting rights and often erects additional obstacles to having those rights restored. The fact is our employee was re-instated after completing her incarceration and a year of parole a decade ago. No one told her. She has carried the weight of 3rd class citizenship for 10 years without cause.
Her status changed through the advocacy of one of our volunteers who doggedly advocated for several of our ladies who “did the crime and paid the time” as much as 20 years back. She discovered the hoops and ladders of actions required, hidden court fees, and thousands in fines plus penalties she never knew she owed.
Drug possession is considered a felony in many cases depending on the type, amount, and how many previous misdemeanor charges one may have had, and the typical prison sentence is 20 months. No matter if there has not been another brush with the Law, and if there has been 20 years of “clean living,” raising a family, commendable job performance, taxes paid and good citizenship, her completion of the sentence is not enough for her to get back the right to vote in Tennessee.
Ruth B. Ginsburg and Susan B. Anthony moved the needle for free women, but today, many of us women have left behind those we could lift up either because of our ignorance or indifference or both. Many women in Tennessee are not voting in the 2020 Presidential Election because they are disenfranchised. Just City Memphis, a non-profit advocacy organization, has been expunging records, where possible, for several years and advises:
“Qualifying for criminal record expungement in Tennessee is difficult and complicated. Most people who apply are not qualified”
With the current political climate, everyone has an opinion and a desire to participate in the process. We will not solve the voting inequities by this November, but we have heightened the desire among our friends in Orange Mound who are reawakened to the privilege to vote, and we will help them pursue that right.
In this day of division along lines of race, class, socio-economic status, political party and religious denomination, our nation is desperate for commonalities – for ties that bind. One thing all American adults share is the right to have their voice heard through the selection of our leaders, unless you have committed a crime.
At The House, we cling to the policy that there is no judgement within those walls. Whatever bad decisions you made decades ago doesn’t disqualify you from fellowship with your sisters or a job for taking care of your family. More importantly, we cling to the biblical truth that despite our failures, Jesus through His grace and mercy forgives our debts and brings us into fellowship with him. Just maybe our laws about voting rights should reflect a little of that same grace and mercy.