Democracy Decoded: Season 2, Episode 2 Transcript

Can I Vote?

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Simone Leeper: The day that Dawn Harrington was arrested, she didn't set out to do anything illegal. The day was actually pretty typical. She was going on a business trip.

Dawn Harrington: I used to work in the music industry and we were in New York doing promo for an album that was about to come out.

Leeper: She was traveling to New York from Nashville, Tennessee where she lived.

Harrington: And I flew in with a firearm that was registered in the state of Tennessee where it was not illegal. I declared it at the airport. I did all of the proper procedures and towards the end of the day, they pulled us over and due to the firearm I was arrested.

Leeper: She, of course, told them that she had all of the proper paperwork. She had taken precautions before packing it.

Harrington: They said that New York, that doesn't matter. And so long story short, after a couple of years fighting the case, I ended up having to do a year on Rikers Island.

Leeper: Dawn's arrest and sentence on Rikers Island were difficult and life altering experiences, but then to add insult to injury, the law in Tennessee added another layer of punishment after her sentence that she had no idea was coming. As Dawn was trying to reestablish her daily life after she got out, one thing she wanted to do was register to vote, but in Tennessee, if you have a felony conviction after 1981, even if it's in another state, you can lose your right to vote. Many people can have the right to vote restored, but the process is extremely challenging. It starts with a piece of paper called a Certificate of Restoration.

Harrington: So in Tennessee, you have to go through Certificate of Restoration process in which you have to get an authority to fill it out, and then you turn it in.

Leeper: It gets more complicated from there, you have to get it signed by a supervising or pardoning authority.

Harrington: That was unclear to me who that even was. Was that the police in New York? Was that Rikers Island? The Department of Corrections? Like who was it? I was for years, basically trying to take this paper from Tennessee and paying to fly out to New York, trying to figure out who needed to fill out my paper.

Leeper: Nobody in New York knew how to help her. After years of this battle...

Harrington: It was just frustrating and after a while just gave up hope because it has become such an possible process to try to get these voting rights restored.

Leeper: Dawn's experience was sadly pretty typical for someone with a felony trying to get their voting rights back in Tennessee. Many voting rights advocates want to change that. I'm Simone Leeper and this is Democracy Decoded, a podcast where we examine our government and discuss innovative ideas that could lead to a stronger, more transparent, accountable, and inclusive democracy. We use this show to explore questions like, why does American democracy look the way it does today and how can we make it more responsive to the people it was formed to serve, like people with experiences in the criminal legal system? People like Dawn today we're talking about felony disenfranchisement.

Dawn Harrington is now the executive director of a nonprofit in Nashville called Free Hearts, that works directly with Tennesseeans with felony convictions and families touched by incarceration. The road to this point though was long. After trying for a while to get her Certificate of Restoration signed, Dawn had given up on regaining her right to vote. It was complicated and expensive to continue this fight. But then after Dawn started working with CLC, we helped connect her with a reporter from the Marshall Project, a non-profit, nonpartisan news organization that focuses on criminal justice to write a story about her situation, and that reporter called Rikers Island for a quote about why they wouldn't sign her paper.

Harrington: And the reporter contacted me and told me that, "I have good news for you. Now, they're going to fill out your form," and that's actually how I got my Certificate of Restoration filled out. But there's so many other people that we meet that are in the same situation as me, where they were convicted in a state where if they were still there, they would have their voting rights back.

Leeper: Every state has different laws about when someone convicted of a felony can get their right to vote back. Dawn lived in one of the most restrictive states.

Harrington: Tennessee is definitely an outlier when it comes to voter disenfranchisement.

Leeper: Not only does someone with a felony conviction have to petition the state of Tennessee to get their voting rights back, there are also financial hurdles like paying court costs and restitution, which can be thousands of dollars.

Harrington: We're the only state that basically requires an individual to be up to date on child support to get their voting rights back, and we are of only a few states that condition restoration of the right to vote on the payment of fees and restitution. We have so many fees in the state of Tennessee.

Leeper: After her situation was finally resolved, Dawn wanted to support other incarcerated Tennesseans and their families and try to change the criminal legal system with her non-profit Free Hearts.

Harrington: Becoming incarcerated myself by a time of my life when I didn't think that could ever be possible, basically for what was essentially a mistake, a misunderstanding. It really just opened my eyes and inspired me to want to, upon release, connect with other women that have had the experience of incarceration and really just coming together to figure out how we can change things.

Leeper: One thing she does is help others with restoring their right to vote. She says there are over 450,000 people in Tennessee who can't vote because of a felony conviction.

Harrington: Those are 456,000 people that can't speak up for the different leadership that would represent our interests. Those are 456,000 people that when laws are made, they're not made with us in mind.

Leeper: Across the nation, that number is even higher.

Blair Bowie: 24 million Americans have been convicted of felonies, and about 5 million of those Americans have lost the right to vote and are being silenced in our democracy.

Leeper: That's Blair Bowie. She's senior legal counsel at Campaign Legal Center and also manages the organization's Restore Your Vote Program.

Bowie: Now, about 19 million of those folks with past convictions could be voting and do have the right to vote under their state's law, but most of them don't know about it. It's a really persistent misconception that any felony conviction takes away your right to vote forever.

Leeper: Like we mentioned in the last episode, deliberate barriers to voting have been prevalent in our country since it was founded. After the Constitution was ratified, only white men who owned property could vote. It took more than a hundred years for women and Black people to gain that right, and even then, it was far from inclusive. The idea of not allowing people with felony convictions to vote first appeared in the late 1800s after the Civil War.

Bowie: So felony disenfranchisement was a tool to strip Black Americans of the freedom to vote.

Leeper: That's Blair again.

Bowie: The way that worked is basically the state's past laws that expanded the criminal legal system and particularly targeted Black folks prohibiting things like holding a job without your former plantation masters permission or gathering in groups of four or more. And then they also passed laws that would take away the right to vote for convictions of those crimes. And in a lot of states, they left those laws intentionally vague so that they could only apply them when Black folks were convicted of crimes.

Leeper: Felony disenfranchisement continues to disproportionately harm Black voters, and that is by design. It is still rooted in these original post-Civil War laws.

Gicola Lane: We are still going off of the constitutions that were written in the 1860s.

Leeper: Gicola Lane also works at Campaign Legal Center with Blair, helping people with felony convictions get their voting rights restored.

Lane: In my research, when I'm preparing materials for some of the partners that we're working with, I'm going back to their state constitution and trying to find what their state law is. That has not changed since its inception and the state constitution, which is wild to even think about, but that is the reality.

Leeper: Felony disenfranchisement and the rights restoration process look wildly different across the country. Take Dawn for example, who spent nearly a decade trying to navigate complicated state laws in Tennessee that ended up requiring her to convince officials in New York to fill out foreign paperwork. Here's Blair.

Bowie: There are between 8 and 10 states that require folks to pay off fines, fees, and restitution before they can restore their right to vote. That's really a modern day poll tax. What that means is that if a rich person and a poor person are convicted of exactly the same crime, the rich person will be able to buy their right to vote back while the poor person will remain disenfranchised indefinitely. And that's undemocratic.

Leeper: Maine, Vermont and Washington DC never take away the right to vote even while someone is serving time in prison. Other states...

Bowie: Let you get your voting rights restored when you're done with prison.

Leeper: Those states include New York, California, Indiana, and Utah. In 17 other states, people get their voting rights back after they leave prison and complete parole or probation.

Bowie: Others erect a series of very complicated barriers, including having to pay court costs and restitution, having to seek out a special certificate that says you're eligible, all kinds of different things.

Leeper: In the most restrictive states, which include Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Wyoming, people have to navigate complicated laws and jump through additional hoops. In Tennessee, that process is particularly convoluted.

Bowie: So the Certificate of Restoration process has multiple points of failure. It's really difficult to find a decision maker who knows what the certificate is and who's willing to fill it out. Even if you do find someone, if they don't feel like filling it out or if they think that you're ineligible, they can basically just refuse to do it. They don't have to give you any official denial, any statement of reasons as to why you're not eligible and they don't make decisions in a uniform way. So a different decision maker might come up with a different answer based on your record, depending on who they are, how they're reading your records, and maybe even what county you were convicted in.

Leeper: Blair says that besides Tennessee, another state that CLC works in that makes it incredibly difficult to regain the right to vote is Alabama.

Bowie: Alabama is one of the states where their constitution was specifically designed to disenfranchise Black people. They said it openly and many times when they were writing their constitution in 1901.

Leeper: Alabama legally disenfranchised Black citizens with a specific phrase in its constitution.

Bowie: They said, "A crime of moral turpitude takes away the right to vote," but they never said what that means, and so individual registrars could basically make that decision. Your crime was a crime of moral turpitude, your crime is fine based on the skin color of the person trying to register to vote, and that law stayed substantively the same up until 2017 when the legislature finally passed a law that clarified which crimes are crimes of moral turpitude.

Leeper: Voting rights restoration varies across the country and is extremely confusing. So Campaign Legal Center started the Restore Your Vote Program to help individuals through this complicated process and train local organizations in these states to help them on the ground.

Milton Thomas: My name is Milton Thomas and I'm from Nashville, Tennessee and I'm a maintenance worker.

Leeper: Milton is a born and raised Tennesseean and a single dad who works at a community center to support his family.

Thomas: I have five, I have custody of four. My oldest son is 16. I have three girls, 14, 13, and 10. And it is like a challenge every day. It's different personalities, different character, and everybody bring their own identity to the family, but I wouldn't put it past nothing in the world to do what I do for them.

Leeper: Campaign Legal Center interviewed Milton back in 2019 to talk about his participation in the Restore Your Vote Program. Milton thinks a lot about his community in Nashville about making sure it's a place where his kids can thrive, but when it comes to electing local officials or voting for policies and people that can make those changes, he couldn't.

Thomas: I tell everybody, the last president I voted for was Bill Clinton. I done got in some trouble in, I guess it was '97, '98. I didn't know that they would take your voter license for catching a felony, but I got a felony.

Leeper: A coworker at the center he does maintenance for, heard about his past and asked if he was able to vote. He said no. She told him he might be able to get those rights back, so he looked into it.

Thomas: I was eligible to get my voter rights back, which I had no idea. Nobody ever told me anything. Once we started that process, I thought it was going to be a breeze, but it was a lot of hurdles and roadblocks.

Leeper: Gicola Lane, who works with Campaign Legal Center was Milton's advocate in this process. One of the first hurdles they faced was that the state said he owed court fees. A local nonprofit paid that off for him. Then...

Lane: The Department of Corrections said they did not know where to send the check for the restitution because the bank where he wrote a bad check or something of that nature no longer existed.

Leeper: The next obstacle they faced...

Lane: They said that he owed child support. I knew personally that he didn't owe child support because he has custody of his children, and so then we had to reach out to Department of Children Services. They were able to go back and forth, look through records, confirm that he doesn't owe child support.

Leeper: For months, Milton and Gicola went from one state agency to another, playing Whack-a-Mole, trying to get everything in order so he could vote.

Lane: And this is with him having an advocate like me with him navigating this process. Most people do not have that and they give up. Nobody is going to run around to all these different buildings. After that, back and forth, Milton Thomas was able to eventually get his rights restored and he voted for the first time in 2020 in over 20 years.

Leeper: Milton says it was a really big deal for him.

Thomas: You showed whoever took it that, look, I could be a productive citizen in the community again and I'm ready to get these things back. So I could feel complete again, since I got in trouble, it's been your word means nothing. No matter what I've done or what I'm doing or what I'm going to continue to do. They look at it as, okay, you had this, so you're nothing. I'm just really want to get it off just off my shoulder off, period so I can just go ahead and move on with my life.

Leeper: Blair, Gicola and all of the other advocates at Campaign Legal Center work every day to help people like Milton navigate this complicated process. Here's Blair again.

Bowie: Campaign legal Center's has been visited and used by hundreds of thousands of people. Our organizers and our hotline have individually assisted over 15,000 people, and our partner groups have reached thousands more in their communities.

Leeper: Their work isn't solely focused on helping individuals. They're also trying to change the laws that create these situations in the first place.

Bowie: Our ultimate goal is to abolish felony disenfranchisement. It doesn't serve any legitimate criminal legal purpose. It takes away individuals freedom to vote, and it really silences a lot of voices in our democracy and that can skew our democracy away from communities that have long been disempowered.

Leeper: Challenging the laws that allow this kind of disenfranchisement is a big part of CLC's work.

Bowie: So we brought a lawsuit in 2020 on behalf of the Tennessee NAACP and five individuals who have been unable to obtain their Certificates of Restoration, challenging those procedures and asking the court to order the state to set up procedures and guardrails that make sure that eligible people are able to get their Certificates of Restoration.

Leeper: CLC filed another lawsuit against the state of Tennessee to clarify the process for Tennesseeans like Dawn, who are convicted of a crime in another state and want to regain their right to vote in Tennessee. Under Tennessee law, a person convicted of a felony in another state is eligible to register to vote in Tennessee if their civil rights have been restored in the state where they were convicted. CLC worked to clarify that path to rights restoration and asked the Elections Division to recognize it in writing. That case was heard by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 2022. Changing the laws in these restrictive states would bring millions of citizens back into the electoral process. As an advocate for people trying to regain their voting rights, Gicola has seen how impactful it is when someone with a felony gets to vote again.

Lane: They are the folks who have first aid experience with this system, right? There's so much money being poured into incarceration, into prisons, into policing, and to running the judicial system on their bags and their family's bags. A lot of them have no say so in who is the school board representative for their children. They can't vote for the sheriff who's running the jails, even the judges who are sitting on the bench who may have sentenced them or who may have given them a fair shot.

Leeper: Dawn Harrington agrees. After serving her prison time, navigating the difficult process of getting her voting rights back and helping others do the same, she thinks her voice is especially important to her community.

Harrington: The people that are closest to the problems are closest to the solution. So instead of silencing us and allowing us to not have a voice enlist us, how do we solve the issues of crime and violence and things like that enlist us in the solutions instead of just having us in a permanent subclass where we have no say, where we have no voice. When I finally did get my voting rights restored in 2020, it was just such a powerful moment of like self-determination and also I'm recognized as a citizen again. My voice, my vote matters to this community, and it gives me a different sense of pride in who I am as a part of this community, as a part of this state. And so definitely I know it has a impact on recidivism because what it does is give us a meaningful opportunity to have a second chance.

Leeper: That's the hope for everyone at CLC to bring more people into the Democratic process because our democracy works best when every American can participate in it without barriers. Special thanks to Dawn Harrington, Gicola Lane, Blair Bowie and Milton Thomas for appearing in this episode. You can find additional background information on the topics discussed in the show notes, along with a full transcript of the show. Democracy Decoded is produced by LWC Studios for Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan non-profit organization which advances democracy through law at the federal, state, and local levels, fighting for every American's right to responsive government, and a fair opportunity to participate in and affect the democratic process. You can visit us on the web at

Democracy Decoded is hosted by me, Simone Leeper, Legal counsel on the redistricting team. Leading the production for Campaign Legal Center are Casey Atkins, multimedia strategist and Mannal Hadad, Senior Communications Manager for voting rights and redistricting. This podcast episode was produced by Claire McInerney, edited by Paulina Velasco and mixed by Florence Barrau-Adams. Democracy Decoded is a member of the Democracy Group, a network of podcasts dedicated to engaging in civil discourse, inspiring civic engagement, and exploring the future of our democracy. You can learn more at