Tennessee Lookout | “New Nashville program provides eligible jail inmates pathway to voter registration, restoration”
Published by Kathy Carlson, January 8, 2024
People in county jails often are eligible to vote, and a new program in Nashville aims to guide potential voters through the process.
“The requirement to serve jail inmates has been around for a long time,” Davidson County Administrator of Elections Jeff Roberts said in an email. “The goal is to create a more effective and efficient program for both the Election Commission and the Sheriff’s Office. This new effort has no additional cost for Metro.”
Voter registration, navigating the absentee ballot request process, voting rights restoration support, and civics education will be a part of the new program, according to a news release from the Davidson County Election Commission, Sheriff’s Office and Nashville Mayor Freddie O’Connell’s office announcing the program, which started in late December. The Sheriff’s office is in charge of Metro’s jails.
“The process and deadlines for voting are different for individuals housed in our local jails,” Roberts said in the release. For example, the deadline for incarcerated persons in Tennessee to request an absentee ballot is 21 days before the election. The deadline for people who aren’t incarcerated is 7 days.
Voting rights advocates said the different processes come from a consent decree in a 1980 lawsuit. The different deadlines may reflect longer time frames for processing mail to and from jails, they said.
“After conversations with the Sheriff’s Office and other advocacy groups, we recognized a need for an on-site, dedicated election specialist to provide guidance to active inmates,” Roberts said. A veteran Election Commission employee transferred last month to the Sheriff’s Office to work with inmates on voting questions.
“Our cooperation with the election commission has been in the works for quite some time,” Jon Adams, director of communications with the sheriff’s office, said in an email. “Providing information, education, and easy access to the voting process affords those incarcerated an opportunity that would, otherwise be more complicated,” Adams said, quoting Nashville Sheriff Daron Hall.
Free Hearts, a Nashville nonprofit led by formerly incarcerated women, supports families affected by incarceration in Tennessee. The group has had jail-based programs since 2017, its executive director, Dawn Harrington, said. Other advocacy groups, including the Campaign Legal Center, Disability Rights Tennessee and Civic Tennessee, have also worked on inmate voting issues.
Harrington saw that inside the Metro jail women were having “heated debates” about elections, and Free Hearts began to focus on ensuring that eligible people there could vote. “People had so many opinions. You would tell that they would be motivated” to vote, Harrington said.
The Davidson County jail system has capacity for 2,350 men and women. The average daily population in Metro’s jail system in 2023 was 1,978 people, Adams said. As of early last week, 2,067 inmates were living in Metro Jail facilities.
People being held in local jails include those who cannot post bond and are awaiting trial, along with those serving misdemeanor sentences, which in Tennessee are less than one year. One Metro Jail facility also houses locally sentenced people serving felony sentences of one to six years. Exact numbers for people in each category weren’t available for this article.
Some people with felony convictions are barred from voting permanently under Tennessee law. Others with felony convictions may have voting rights restored. People with misdemeanor records alone or no criminal record at all can continue to vote, including from jail using absentee ballots.
“It’s just been a trajectory,” Harrington said. “The fact that other groups have been involved, other people that really care about voting, has helped to push this forward in a huge way. … This has been a group effort (that’s been) years in the making.”