East TN group bridging gap on voting rights for people with past felony convictions

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – An East Tennessee community group is hoping to clear up confusion and questions for those with past criminal convictions.

On Wednesday, the Restore Your Vote organization gathered city leaders and many in the community to share the steps they believe could help those with past felony convictions regain their voting rights.

Organizers say many people who’ve lost their voting rights have no idea they can get them back.

Maurice Clark Sr. shared his journey, that in 2004 he was released from prison. Before he went home, Mr. Clark says regaining his right to vote was important.

“In 2009, I did have my rights restored,”he explained.

During those five years, Mr. Clark says he educated others in his community with past convictions on how they could vote again.

“When 2012 came, that was an exciting moment for me just to be able to vote for President Obama the second time he ran for office.”

Restore Your Vote says felony disenfranchisement is a big problem nationally and here in Tennessee.

“It’s sad that not many people know this, but not surprising. What should be happening is that when somebody gets off of probation and parole, they should be told, ‘Hey, here’s how you get your voting rights restored.’ But in many cases that’s not happening,” said Gayle Schwartzberg with Restore Your Vote.

Organizers and community leaders say that’s the reason why they’re pushing for change.

“There are a couple factors that go into play here, not just the shame, but they’re already trying to get reintroduced and reintegrated into society and that just becomes not that important to them,” said Knoxville City Council Member, Gwen McKenzie.

Council Member McKenzie says when she was campaigning, she encountered many who weren’t able to vote.

“I was hearing a lot of people say that number one, ‘My vote doesn’t count,’ and as we talked a little bit more and really drilled into it, they would tell me that, ‘I lost my voting rights,’ or, ‘I can’t vote.’ So just in those conversations they had no clue on where to even start,” McKenzie said.

City leaders and organizers hope those with past felony convictions make that phone call to vote again.

“Voting is a right, not a privilege,” said Council Member McKenzie.

“It just felt good to be able to go in there into the voting booth,” added Clark.

Restore Your Vote holds a weekly clinic at Tribe of Judah Event Center in Knoxville, 4101 Holston Drive, every Monday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

If you have a felony conviction, eligibility to register and vote depends on the crime you were convicted of and the date of your conviction.

The state saying those who are interested in having their rights restored need to submit a Restoration of Voting Rights form.

The form must be completed by someone who has the authority, a probation and parole officer or criminal court clerk, to provide the required information regarding the person’s conviction, final release date, and restitution or court costs.

From there, the state says the form must be submitted to the local county election commission where the person lives.

We’re told once the Division of Elections reviews the form and verifies eligibility, the person’s rights are restored and they may register to vote.

If you have questions about this process, you can call the state’s office at 1-877-850-4959 or visit their website here.

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