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PLN associate editor reaches tentative settlement to regain voting rights

Tennessean, Jan. 1, 2008.
PLN associate editor reaches tentative settlement to regain voting rights - Tennessean 2008

October 4, 2008

Felon registers to vote after settling lawsuit

Staff Writer

It took more than 15 years, a lawsuit and a $900 payment for Alex Friedmann to be able to register to vote Friday.

On Friday, Friedmann, Metro Nashville and Tennessee government officials reached a tentative settlement in a federal civil suit filed in February.

Tennessee is one of 48 states that strip felons of their voting rights. But it is one of only 11 states that do not automatically restore those rights when offenders complete their sentences, probation or parole requirements and make restitution to victims.

"A citizen of the United States should not have to sue their state government and pay a fee to be able to register to vote," Friedmann said, "but that's exactly what happened here."

Friedmann was convicted of armed robbery and assault with intent to commit murder in the 1980s and armed robbery in the early 1990s.

After completing his sentence and later becoming a journalist and a prisoner rights advocate, Friedmann discovered he could not register to vote because of an unclear judgment against him.

The judge who oversaw Friedmann's first conviction ordered him to pay an unspecified amount of restitution "pursuant to probation" after his first conviction.

But Friedmann's probation was revoked in connection with his conviction in the early 1990s, and he served time.

Once he was released, neither the Davidson County Criminal Clerk nor probation and parole was willing to accept the $900 restitution payment that Friedmann recalls seeing on a pre-sentencing report.

"I have always been willing to comply with the law and pay the restitution if, in fact, it is owed, but couldn't find anyone willing to accept the payment," he said.

"And there are other people, people whose sentences have expired, who are probably dealing with the same thing."

He filled out his voter registration form on Friday, and lawyers for the state assured him they would find some agency to accept his $900.

The number of people caught in the kind of voting rights limbo Friedmann described is unclear.

Probation and parole officers typically don't accept restitution payments, so the agency has no data on the number of convicted felons who have completed the terms of their probation or parole but have not paid restitution, said Melissa McDonald, a state parole board spokeswoman.

Millions are denied vote

The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based voting rights advocacy organization, estimates that 5.3 million Americans are barred from voting because of criminal convictions and state laws governing their access to the voting booth.

The Tennessee ACLU says the state's complex new voting rights restoration law, passed in 2006, isn't helping matters.

Not a single question on a September ACLU survey on the law was answered correctly by all 95 of Tennessee's county election officials, said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee.

In the old law, if a person's crimes corresponded with a mass of confusing dates, that person wouldn't be able to vote.

The new law removed most of the date issues but required felons to get up-to-date on their child support and pay all restitution before being allowed to vote.

And some crimes, such as murder, rape and bribery, committed between certain dates will disqualify a felon from voting in Tennessee for life.

The ACLU will continue to press for additional changes in the state law, Weinberg said.

Friedmann's case was severed from two other ex-offenders who claimed they should be allowed to vote despite being behind on child support payments because other people in their situation are.

Late last month, Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas A. Wiseman Jr. ruled that the Tennessee law could stand because the U.S. Constitution allows convicted felons to be stripped of their voting rights. Wiseman's ruling dismissed all but Friedmann's claims.