To understand Moses’s case, one needs to know that America has long stripped people convicted of felonies of the vote.
After constitutional amendments in the 19th century expanded the franchise to Black Americans, many states passed felon disenfranchisement laws as a way to continue to keep African Americans from the ballot box and therefore prevent them from wielding political power, said Christopher Uggen, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has studied the topic closely. He suggested the laws have persisted because people with criminal convictions are stigmatized, and so seeking redress for them is politically fraught.
Today, the laws continue to heavily affect Black Americans – 5.3% of the adult Black population is disenfranchised because of a felony, compared to 1.5% of the non-Black adult population. Overall, an estimated 4.6 million people can’t vote because of a felony conviction in the US.
Black Americans experience higher rates of voting disenfranchisement
Estimates of the percentage of the voting-age population that was disenfranchised in 2022
Tennessee population with felonies
Black Tennessee population with felonies
Guardian graphic. Source: The Sentencing Project.
Moses’s home state of Tennessee strips any person convicted of a felony of the right to vote. Nearly 472,000 people of voting age can’t vote in Tennessee because of a felony conviction, the vast majority of whom have completed their sentence, according to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice non-profit. It’s estimated that more than one in five Black people of voting age in the state can’t vote because of a felony.
In Tennessee, it is also extremely difficult for these people to get their voting rights back once they complete their sentences. There are three different sets of rules, depending on when the person was convicted. A request to even just fill out the state’s required application for the restoration of voting rights can be rejected for any reason – without explanation.
Tennessee’s confusing system isn’t unusual. Many US states, particularly in the south, require anyone with a felony conviction to go through a bureaucratic process if they want to vote again.
In Mississippi, people with certain felony convictions have to petition the legislature to restore their voting rights individually – and hardly anyone makes it through.
In Florida, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 to repeal the state’s lifetime voting ban for most people with felonies. But the Florida legislature quickly stepped in and passed a measure that said completing a sentence meant paying all outstanding fines and court fees, which put voting again out of reach for many. Even if people can afford to pay, it’s extremely difficult to figure out how much they owe since the state has no centralized way of keeping track.
Tennessee has the highest rate of Black people with felony convictions disenfranchised from voting
Five states with the highest estimated rates in 2022