Mathew Charles, 52, was released from a Kentucky prison under the First Step Act on Feb 3, 2019. Two days later he was President Trump’s guest at the State of the Union address in Washington D.C.

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — Two Republicans have introduced legislation to give voting rights back to ex-felons who have served their time and are back in their communities working and paying taxes, but can’t vote. There are 320,000 of them in Tennessee. 

Thirty-eight states have reformed their felon voting laws including Georgia, Arkansas, Missouri, North Carolina, and Florida. Tennessee is an outlier with eight percent of its voting age population unable to vote. Disenfranchisement in Tennessee is more than three times the national average of 2.5%.

“I paid my debt to society so I want to get my right to vote again,” said Mathew Charles.

Charles, 52, served 21 years of a 35-year sentence for selling crack. He was sentenced in 1995 and released in 2016 under the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act. Judge Kevin Sharp ruled Charles was punished unfairly compared to people who sold cocaine. There are thousands of people in prison serving disproportionately longer sentences for crack. Many of them are black like Charles.

Charles was a model prisoner, took courses, and mentored other prisoners and had no disciplinary write-ups while in jail. He said accepting Jesus Christ helped him live a better life.

But an appeals courts reversed Judge Kevin Sharp’s ruling and ordered Charles to serve ten more years. He had been out for almost two years, found a job, a place to live, and had reconnected with family and friends. Most importantly, Charles had not reoffended.

His case drew national attention and when President Trump signed the First Step Act on December 21, 2018 Charles’ lawyers immediately filed a motion for his release. U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger reduced Charles’ sentence to time served and he was released from Grayson County Detention Center in Leitchfield, Kentucky on Jan 3, 2019.

Two days later, President Trump invited Charles to his State of the Union address in Washington. Charles said he was honored to be there. The First Step Act is designed to reduce the number of federal prisoners and to keep them from coming back. It is a kind of re-do of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act because it allows some 2,600 federal inmates to petition for lighter sentences for crack cocaine offenses committed before 2011.

“I feel restoring a person’s voting rights is allowing him to know they’ve received a second chance. The laws are antiquated and also there are so many hurdles that a person has to get over it keeps them from even trying to get their voting rights,” Charles said.

“We put too many burdens in place,” said Representative Michael Curcio (R-District 69), one of the bill’s sponsors. Representative Harold Love (D-District 58) is a Democratic sponsor of the House bill.

“We are the only state that ties payment of child support to having those rights restored,” Curcio said. He said you have to go to 12 state or local agencies to get your voting rights restored. 

“And then they say at the end of the line ‘oh by the way you haven’t been caught up on these back payments’ then you still can’t have your rights restored. We just felt like it was an injustice to couple the non-payment of those fees and funds to their constitutionally-protected right to vote,” Curcio said. 

“No matter which angle you look at it this is just good policy. It’s good government. It’s a good way to improve the lot of people and reduce recidivism and to give people truly a second chance. We believe in Redemption. Let’s show him everyone deserves Redemption,” said Tori Venable, Director of Americans for Prosperity Tennessee. 

The bill does not restore voting rights in cases of rape, murder, voter fraud, treason, sexual offenses with a minor, and certain government corruption crimes. And it doesn’t wave fines, fees, and back child support payments.

“You are still required to pay those debts. You’re just not being punished based on your financial status which is what’s happening now,“ said Hedy Weinburg, Executive Director of ACLU in Tennessee. Weinburg said the process is cumbersome, duplicative, and could be easily streamlined. Under the proposed law, the state coordinator of elections would initiate the process instead of the individual.

Current Tennessee voting laws impact people of color more when it comes to disenfranchisement. One in five African Americans in Tennessee can’t vote. Tennessee is one of only four states with a 20% rate of ineligible black voters. The others are Iowa, Virginia, and Kentucky.

A study by the Florida Parole Commission found ex-felons whose voting rights were restored were three times less likely to reoffend. Another study found former offenders who voted were half as likely to be re-arrested as those who did not.