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Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey's Base: Mountain City Prisoners' Voting Block

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doeriver Donating Member (677 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Sep-06-11 07:28 AM
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Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey's Base: Mountain City Prisoners' Voting Block
Quirky TN laws let prisoners vote
Council candidate's challenge spotlights 'unsettling' loophole


Until Jan. 15, 1973, people found guilty of infamous crimes in Tennessee forfeited their voting rights.

The definition of infamous was quirky to the point of ridiculousness: Someone convicted of abusing a female child would be banned from the ballot box, but nothing was said about abusing a male child. And while bigamy, horse stealing or destroying a will would lead to disenfranchisement, first-degree murderers including James Earl Ray, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.s assassin, continued to vote with the law on their side.

David Collins, the states election coordinator from 1977 to 1987, said the legislature inadvertently repealed the law in 1972, effective the following Jan. 15. Starting on that date, no crime would result in disenfranchisement.

But no one seemed to recognize this new reality until Rozelle Tate, an inmate at the Shelby County Penal Farm, somehow stumbled across it in 1980, Collins said. Tate then sent the Shelby County Election Commission an application to register to vote by mail.

When the election commission asked Collins what to do, he was sure there had been a mistake. He soon realized he was wrong. But he thought another law, which prohibited absentee voting if imprisonment was the reason a person couldnt go to the polls, would still keep Tate from voting.

So Collins told the Shelby election commissioners to let Tate register but not to let him vote.

Tate didnt think that was fair, Collins recalled in a phone interview Thursday. And neither did Judge (Robert) McRae down in Memphis.

While Tate and other inmates who were filing similar suits wanted polling places established at every prison and jail, McRae, a federal judge, agreed with Collins that the prison was not their legal domicile, Collins wrote in an email.

It was therefore agreed that the prisoners last free world address would be his presumed domicile unless he expressed a different intention (or location), he wrote.

The General Assembly closed the loophole the year after Tate v. Collins was decided. The new law forced people convicted of first-degree murder, aggravated rape, treason or voter fraud to give up their voting rights, effective May 18, 1981.

By then, however, hundreds of felons and other prisoners had registered to vote in counties across the state the counties to which they said they planned to return once they were free.

Where they were incarcerated didnt matter.

The point is, they dont have to live where they vote, said Collins, now an attorney in private practice in Nashville. The state has to take their word for it.


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