Today marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification. But even a century later, not all Tennesseans can vote. Felony convictions keep hundreds of thousands of people out of the polls.
For years, Dawn Harrington was one of them. But on Aug. 5, Harrington voted for the first time in over a decade.
In a video posted on her Facebook page, cheery music plays in the background as Harrington tells the camera that she just got her voting rights restored — and just a few days before the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.
“What better time to go in here and vote?” she says to the camera.
Then she masks up and dances across the street and into the polling place.
It took 10 years for Harrington to get all the paperwork in place to restore her voting rights in Tennessee. In 2008, she was charged with felony gun possession for bringing a licensed firearm to New York, which doesn’t recognize out-of-state permits.
Harrington says casting her ballot was one of the most empowering moments she’s experienced since her conviction.
“When I turned in my ballot, I just started crying, because I was like, you know, wow — all of this time, all that I’ve been through since then,” she says. “But this is one moment when I could feel, in some ways, restored.”
Now, Harrington is determined to help as many other people as she can get their voting rights back. Through her nonprofit organization, Free Hearts, Harrington is running a texting campaign to provide Tennesseans with step-by-step advice to restore their voting rights.
“At Free Hearts, we always think, ‘We’re not free until everybody else is free. We’re not restored until everybody else is restored,'” Harrington says. “It renewed my vigor, wanting this for everybody that’s been disenfranchised by the state.”
Paperwork And Fees Cause Barriers
More than 420,000 Tennesseans are unable to vote due to a felony conviction, according to a 2016 Sentencing Project report. That’s about one in 12 adults of voting age in the state — the fourth-highest rate in the country.
That’s because, even when people complete their sentences — including their parole or probation — they still have to navigate through a maze of obstacles to get their signed certificate of restoration.
“That is incredibly difficult,” says Blair Bowie, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C.
In partnership with Free Hearts, she’s helped about 1,000 Tennesseans with the voting rights restoration process, including Harrington. But she says getting all the necessary paperwork in order is a struggle.
“Maybe the clerk of court will fill it out for you. Or maybe they’ll only fill out half, and then you’ll have to go back to probations and try to get it filled out,” Bowie says. “Some counties have never heard of it. Some counties actually charge people to fill them out. So, that is a whole process in and of itself. And that can be a major, major barrier.”
And Bowie says it’s not just the paperwork that makes the process so difficult. It’s also the price. Tennesseans who have been convicted of a felony have to pay off all lingering court costs, restitution and child support before they can register to vote.
“That is basically making the right to vote contingent on wealth,” she says. “You can have a situation where two people were convicted of exactly the same crime and given exactly the same sentence. But, if one person is rich, they’ll be able to buy their right to vote back while the other person, if they’re poor, will never be able to vote again.”
‘My Voice Doesn’t Matter’
A bill that would eliminate those requirements has received bipartisan support in the state legislature and swept through the House in June. But because the legislature has adjourned, it will have to be debated all over again next year.
In the meantime, Mistie Dunmire is racing to find a way to pay the nearly $1,000 she owes before the November election.
“I’m on a fixed income. I have rent to pay. I have a lot of other things that want to put that on the back burner,” she says. “With corona kicking in, I’m barely making my rent payment. So it made me feel like, ‘Oh, well. It’s not gonna happen.’ ”
When Dunmire was in her 20s, nearly three decades ago, she was convicted of two felonies for stealing to support a drug addiction. It was only recently that Dunmire learned she could get her voting rights restored. And she was thrilled. She drove two counties over, eager to be the first of her friends to get her rights back.
But that thrill started to fade when Dunmire learned it would cost $50 just to fill out the forms. Then the clerk said she owed more than $900 in court costs that no one had bothered to tell her about for 26 years. She knew she couldn’t pay it.
“And so, I drove all the way over there that day with excitement and drove home with my tail between my legs with disappointment,” she says
Dunmire says she feels powerless, just like she did when she was in jail. She wants to prove that she has become a “productive member of society.”
But she didn’t have enough money to support herself when she stole all those years ago. And she doesn’t have enough money to make up for that mistake now, either.
“Because, if I had the money to go over there to pay, I could pay the fit $25 for each form, I could go ahead and pay the $900 they’re saying I owe them and I could vote,” she says. “But because I’m poor, I can’t. My voice doesn’t matter.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.
Correction: This story originally overstated how many Tennesseans that the Campaign Legal Center has helped regain their voting rights. The organization has assisted 1,000 Tennesseans with the restoration process, but fewer have completed it.