Why Can't I Vote?

Sep 30 2016
Posted by: The Contributor
Why Can't I Vote?

By: Amelia Ferrell Knisely

This November, thousands of homeless Tennesseans will struggle to make it to the ballot. What barriers do they so commonly face?


A lack of a mailing address or photo identification (ID) shouldn't keep someone from casting a vote. But in Tennessee, state laws will bar many homeless from deciding who will represent them.
Nationally, legislative efforts to help homeless Americans secure voting rights were not present until the 1980s, according to The National Coalition for the Homeless. Several court cases in 1984 specifically addressed rules that barred homeless individuals from voting:

  • Pitts v. Black challenged a New York State Election Law provision that banned people experiencing homelessness from voting. The District Court found that this ban “disenfranchised an entire group of people, which is forbidden by the Equal Protection Clause.” It was determined that someone’s place of residence is the place “at the center of the individual's life,” or where they intended to stay, and where they can be contacted.
  • In the administrative hearing of In re-Application for Voter Registration of Willie R. Jenkins, the Washington, D.C., Board of Elections ruled that a person’s intent to reside in a place means that location counts as a place of residence for voting purposes. 
  • A California court ruled in Collier v. Menzel in 1985 that denying people their right to vote because they listed the park as their place of residence violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The court determined that the park’s location would determine the voting district.  
  • A 1987 decision in Fischer v. Stout said that homeless shelters or park benches are sufficient places of residence to register to vote in Alaska. 

Tennessee’s residency requirements for voter registration do not require the applicant to reside in a building; rather, state code enables the applicant to describe where he or she usually sleeps. This location may be the address of a shelter or the description of a street corner, but must be an address where the individual can receive mail.

While the state does permit flexibility on place of residency, Tennessee’s voter photo ID laws are some of the strictest in the country. Some states only require identification, but Tennessee requires a state issued ID, a valid U.S. passport or a handgun carry permit with a photo in order to cast a vote. Homeless individuals may not have a state-issued ID or may be unable to provide the necessary documents  (and possible funds) to receive one.

Democrat lawmakers in Tennessee have recently attempted to soften the state’s voter ID laws, citing cases in North Carolina and Texas where strict voter ID laws have been struck down as “discriminatory.”  Proponents of the strict laws have said  they’re in place to protect against voter ID fraud, but Democrats argue the laws have led to a decrease in turnout. (A federal voter ID study from the U.S. Government Accounting Office in 2014 said Tennessee’s voter ID laws have decreased turnout by 3 percent.) 

“The key to take away with voter ID is that we have a number of ways to allow as many Tennesseans as possible to exercise their right to vote,” argued Adam Ghassemi, Director of Communications for Tennessee’s Secretary of State. “Regardless of where they are in life, regardless of their economic status.” Ghassemi said provisions in state voter laws are mechanisms in place to help compensate for those who may experience barriers in voter registration. 

One of those provisions includes allowing those who are unable to afford documentation required for a photo ID to sign a form stating they are indigent. The form is supposed to be available at polling places (the Secretary of State’s office could not confirm if the form would be available). An indigent vote is counted as a “normal” vote, not provisional.

 The state also provides free voter IDs to residents, but the requirements include a birth certificate and two proofs of residency. Obtaining a birth certificate costs at least $15 and requires documents including medical records and a Social Security card. (Interestingly, a voter ID is one of the accepted documents for obtaining a birth certificate.) Providing a stack of paperwork, plus possibly paying for transportation to obtain necessary documents, is difficult for those whose belongings are confined to just a few bags. Colleen Cosgriff of the Washington, D.C. street paper Street Sense contributed to this report.


More than 10 percent of those across the country entering prisons and jails are homeless in the months before their incarceration. When they finish serving the required time, making the transition from incarceration to society is a difficult one that requires self-sustainment through employment and permanent housing. It’s a hard road when your applications are marked with the word “felon.” The restrictions go beyond certain jobs and homes: in Tennessee, you lose the ability to participate in a Constitutionally enshrined right: voting.

The U.S. is among the strictest nations in the world in terms of denying voting to those who have felony convictions on their record, according to a report from The Sentencing Project. The group estimates that nearly 6 billion Americans cannot vote after having been convicted of a felony.

The U.S. Constitution permits states to determine rules for felony disenfranchisement, therefore restoration of rights after a felony conviction vary state to state. All but two states (Maine and Vermont) do not allow felons to vote from prison; Iowa, Kentucky, Florida and Virginia deny the right to vote to all persons with felony conviction, even after they have completed their sentences; then, there’s Tennessee, with its complicated and often expensive road to restoring voting rights. 

“When I speak with people who have returned from incarceration and want to be able to vote, they talk about feeling whole and being a part of society,” said Bettie Kirkland, executive director Project Return. The Nashville-based program provides education and support to people who have been convicted of felonies or serious misdemeanors and then released from incarceration. “Voting – being able to fully participate in the civic process – should be part of one's successful return to the community and part of the restoration of one's status as a law-abiding, productive citizen.”

Voter participation for Nashville and the rest of the state is abysmal. In 2014, Tennessee was ranked 50th out of 51 (including the District of Columbia) for voters not bothering to vote, and the state has been one of the worst in the country for voter turnout for the past eight years. The Pew Research Center reported Nashville had a voter turnout of only 12 percent for its local and state elections in August. 

So, if you’re reading this as a Tennessee resident, you may think that loss of voting rights isn’t a big deal since voter turnout numbers paint a pretty grim picture.

But it is a big deal, because those in office should represent and reflect who they serve – regardless if the individual has previously been incarcerated for a felony. 

Tennessee is among the dozen states with the most restrictive controls on voting rights after felony convictions. The system for restoring the right to vote has cumbersome steps .

Here’s a few of the requirements:

  • Completion of one's prison or jail time, as well as the completion of probation and parole, which can extend years beyond the completion of incarceration.
  • Correctional officers and court officers are required to complete Certificate of Restoration forms, one for each past felony conviction. It cannot be completed by the individual. The individual seeking restoration may have to pay for copies of court records and other documents. (Additionally, it can be more difficult for those who rely on public transportation.) 
  • All court costs, fees, restitution and child support obligations must be paid.

“Court costs alone can total tens of thousands of dollars. This kind of debt is a huge barrier, then, for the ex-incarcerated folks, that keeps them from being allowed to vote,” said Kirkland. “If all Americans had to be debt-free in order to have voting rights, we'd probably have very few Americans able to participate in the political process.”

Additionally, the restoration process has been linked to minimizing the minority vote. Approximately 20 percent — one in five — of African-American men in Tennessee cannot vote because of a past felony conviction.

“Most people understand these days that the highly restrictive laws around felony disenfranchisement are a modern version of old efforts to suppress the black vote. I think it's important for us to be aware of the roots and the impacts of this type of law, and to ensure that our laws reflect our values,” Kirkland added.

As thousands of Americans head to the polls this fall (and hopefully an increased number of Tennesseans), the voter restoration process will undoubtedly act as a barrier to some homeless casting a vote for representation. The process requires time away from work, money, federal agents, transportation and documentation – things not always available to those living on the streets. 

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