For one eight-year, four-month period some 30 years ago, criminals could do anything they wanted in the state of Tennessee without losing at least one freedom: the right to vote. That fact now haunts Mary Carolyn Roberts, a candidate for a Metro Council seat representing the West Nashville district where three state prisons are located. “It’s just unsettling to see nine felons … deciding who our elected officials are,” Roberts said.
Roberts lost to Councilman Buddy Baker by 46 votes last month, but Baker received just nine more votes than he needed to avoid a runoff in the three-candidate District 20 race. Roberts later filed an election challenge, citing votes by nine prisoners — including six who aren’t even incarcerated in Nashville — and by 14 other people who allegedly don’t live in the district.
… 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David Collins, the state’s election coordinator from 1977 to 1987, said the legislature inadvertently repealed the law in 1972, effective the following Jan. 15.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 couldn’t 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 “didn’t 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 prisoner’s 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.