"The vote is the most powerful instrument ... for destroying the terrible walls that imprison men."
So said President Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that outlawed poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures enacted in the South to keep African Americans from voting.
Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the state of Tennessee to remove obstacles — including what they call a modern-day poll tax — that keep formerly imprisoned men from the polls. The suit seeks to nullify sections of the Tennessee Code that restore voting rights to felons only under certain conditions.
Traditionally, a felon who receives a pardon, serves a full sentence, or completes parole or probation can apply for the right to vote. In 2006, though, the state legislature added new amendments that force felons to pay victim restitution and be current on child support payments, when applicable, before voting again. The American Civil Liberties Union contends that "no one should have to pay any fine or any monetary obligation as a condition to vote," according to ACLU Voting Rights Project attorney Nancy Abudu.
The ACLU Voting Rights Project conducts public voting education programs, which brought them in touch with the plaintiffs, including Shelby County resident Terrence Johnson, who owes both restitution and child support, the latter amounting to $1,200 despite the fact that he maintains custody of his daughter.
"With respect to child support," Abudu says, "one of our biggest concerns is that people who owe child support but have never been convicted of a crime don't have their voting rights taken away. It creates a double standard."
The 2006 restitution amendment was sponsored by Memphians Kathryn Bowers in the Senate, who has since resigned after a guilty plea in a Tennessee Waltz case, and Joe Towns Jr. in the state House. Though the ACLU has referred to the legislation as a modern-day poll tax — citing legal measures that prevented African Americans from voting during Reconstruction — both sponsors of the amendment are African American.
Abudu explains that the suit is not race-based.
"But if you look at the history of the law and the current context of the law, you can't ignore the racial implications," she says. She adds that the disproportionate numbers of minorities imprisoned means that the felon voting law affects them unequally.
Of the more than 25,000 male inmates incarcerated in Tennessee in June 2007, roughly 48 percent of them were African American.
The defendants — Governor Phil Bredesen, coordinator of elections Brook Thompson, Secretary of State Riley Darnell, and Shelby County election administrator James Johnson, in addition to elections administrators in Davidson and Madison counties — have not responded to the suit. Abudu hopes that the case will be heard this summer.
Abudu believes that the ACLU suit also reinforces the main goal of the penal process. "If you're looking at rehabilitation, allowing someone to vote helps," she says.
Towns could not be reached for comment. James Johnson indicated that he's unable to address pending court cases.