As the 2016 presidential election draws closer, and campaign signs begin to litter the yards of Memphis neighborhoods, Memphis voters will try to decide who to cast ballots for in November.
However, not all Memphis residents over the legal voting age will have that same opportunity.
Marcus Hart is one of the more than 10,000 Memphis residents who won’t be able to vote in the upcoming presidential election.
Hart, a 41-year-old African-American Memphis native and single father of one, bought stolen items five years ago and was convicted of aggravated burglar. As a convicted felon in the state of Tennessee, Hart lost his voting privileges. He isn’t alone. In 2014 more than 3.9 million Americans were disenfranchised because of their status as a convicted felon
“I got charged with aggravated burglary, even though they couldn’t prove that I did actually steal the items,” Hart said. “They were found on my property, so I had to take the charge.”
After serving three months, Hart was released when he agreed to go through a diversion program, allowing him to come back home to his son, who has been diagnosed with sickle cell disease.
“I could’ve stayed in jail a little bit longer,” Hart said. “But then I said, ‘Maybe the Lord is trying to tell me something. I should just go ahead and do this diversion program, and complete the steps and go on from here.’”
Having voted in previous elections, Hart was anxious to cast his ballot after he got out. However, he received a letter from the state explaining that he could no longer vote. “I felt like my voice was being taken away from me,” Hart said. “I feel like my voice will not be heard, because I can’t vote. I won’t be able to help make a difference about the issues of not just our country but cities, schools, and crime all over.”
Although 20 other states make it easier for felons to earn back their right to vote, repentance is not easy in the state of Tennessee. Felons lose their right to vote even after they have served their sentences. The journey back to voting again can cost thousands of dollars.
For instance, felons must pay all court fees, and have no outstanding debt, to be considered for re-institution, said Shelby County election official, Vickie Collins. Debts include court costs, which can amount to thousands of dollars, and restitution to victims, if any is owed. Even debts unrelated to the felony have to be paid.
“Child support is what stops most people from being able to fulfill the requirements,” Collins said.
Such stringent requirements to regain voting rights — or even depriving felons their right to vote in the first place — is called the new Jim Crow by author Michelle Alexander, who wrote a book by the same name. Statistics show that out of the 3.9 million Americans who have lost their right to vote, more than half of them are African-Americans.
In her book, Alexander claims the United States will imprison one third of its African-American population, decreasing the number of African-American voters in the nation. She added that issues of mass incarceration must be addressed as issues of racial justice and civil rights.
Audio slideshow by Katie Mayo and Hasan Allawi.
Joseph Hayden, the founder of The Campaign to End the Jim Crow Movement, said that minorities suffer more injustice than justice through the criminal justice system.
“After the Voting Rights Act, the only push back was to disenfranchise black people and other minorities through the system,” Hayden said, who lost his right to vote after being convicted of aggravated assault in New York.
“If a law disproportionately impacts African-Americans or any other protected minority group, then that law is racist in content,” Hayden said. “That is not what the Voting Rights Act is about.”
Memphis Mirror staff writer Hasan Allawi also contributed to this story.