State probes felons registered to vote

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

District Attorney Chuck Crawford has the names of eight felons who have registered to vote in Marshal County and he's opened an investigation into whether any of them registered after they were convicted, according to the state prosecutor's office for this and three other counties.

It's illegal for felons to register to vote if they've not had their citizenship rights restored by a chancellor or a circuit court judge, according to State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins. In fact, if such an ex-convict signs a voter registration card and checks a box to say no, indicating they have not been convicted of a felony, then that's evidence available to prove the ex-con committed another felony.

Crawford's office received the names of the eight Marshall County felons from the Marshall County Election Commission as a result of a commission meeting late last month, Election Commissioner Don Wright said. Elections Administrator Jo Ann Henry received the list from the Tennessee Department of State's Office of the Elections Coordinator. It had asked the Tennessee Department of Corrections to compare its list of prisoners with the list of registered voters.

An initial analysis of the eight names indicates: three of the named individuals voted in 2008; one registered in 1990; one was purged from the voter registration rolls through a routine process of removing names of people who don't vote for a certain period of time; and three, maybe four, would appear to be subject to closer investigation and possible prosecution, according to discussion among members of the Marshall County Election Commission.

"It's up to the DA," Henry said.

Statewide, there are 13,293 felons who were found to be registered to vote. In Davidson County, there were 1,648. Tennessee's elections coordinator also reported: 84 in Bedford County; 27 in Lincoln County; and 26 in Moore County. Beyond the 17th Judicial District in nearby counties there were: 464 in Rutherford; 173 in Williamson; and 139 in Maury.

Marshall County's Election Commission had not been provided information like this before, Wright noted. He suggested that the names should be provided to the district attorney whose jurisdiction includes Marshall, Bedford, Moore and Lincoln counties.

Election commissioners agreed that Henry should prepare a letter for the DA's office and that they would individually visit the election office to sign the joint letter from the Commission to the district attorney.

"We want to do what we should," Wright said. Then, referring to state code for election office procedures, Wright said, "It says we shall. We will" tell the prosecutor.

The Tennessee Constitution allows the Legislature to deny the right to vote to persons convicted of "infamous" crimes. Under this law, the Legislature has excluded individuals convicted of various felonies from the right of suffrage.

"If one of those people was registered to vote before their conviction, then they haven't violated the law because the conviction came after the registration," Goins said.

The legislature has also established conditions and procedures through which individuals who have lost their voting rights may regain them. The manner in which a person may restore a lost voting right depends upon the crime committed and the year in which the conviction occurred.

If felons "vote after the felony and had not restored their voting rights, they would have voted illegally," Goins said.

The district attorney was reluctant to make extensive comments so as not to jeopardize his office's investigation.

"We're going to take a long hard look at the list and move forward on the cases where there was genuine wrong doing," Crawford said Monday.

One of the things being explored by an agent of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is whether or not any of the eight people named by the TDOC and the state Elections Registry are people who registered after a conviction.

Crawford recognized some of the names because the people have appeared in court.

As for steps to prevent felons from voting in the Aug. 5 county general elections, the state primaries that day and state and federal elections in November, Crawford said, "I feel confident that the election officials will do their jobs as evidenced by them turning these names over to us."

Goins confirmed it: "The list we sent out is one way to take ineligible voters off the voter registration list. Also, many of he local criminal court clerks provide the information to the local administrator of elections regularly."