Poll Taxes Return to Tennessee in Guise of Child Support

Nashville, TN–Have “poll taxes” — a Jim Crow practice designed to keep African-Americans and poor people out of the voting booth — returned to Tennessee?

In 2006, the Tennessee legislature passed reforms to allow convicted felons to regain voting rights after serving their time. Amendments were attached specifying that voting rights could not be regained unless all criminal restitution payments and child support were current. Approximately 48% of Tennessee male prisoners are African American, and the vast majority of those of all races who are behind on child support are indigent. So the bottom line is, Tennessee has come up with yet another way to keep large numbers of African Americans and poor people from voting

The American Civil Liberties Union – initially a supporter of the reform effort — sued Tennessee state and county officials in February to eliminate the provisions about child support and restitution. It represents three men who have served their time but cannot regain the right to vote because of the amendments.

Said Plaintiff Terence Johnson, “I’ve served my time, I am a taxpaying citizen and I have custody of my daughter. It is wrong for the state to punish me and other people while we get our lives back on track.” Read more about here.

Tennessee Child Support Guidelines do not specifically address incarcerated obligors. Thus by default they are treated similarly to most other states, i.e., imprisonment is considered “voluntary unemployment.”

Let’s consider a hypothetical father who paid $6,000 annually in support prior to his three year incarceration for a property crime. Assuming that he has the knowledge or legal assistance to get a child support modification hearing while incarcerated, his best case scenario would be a reduction to the state minimum Basic Support Order of $100 per month. He would still leave prison owing $3,600 in back support and would be unable to vote. If he did not know to seek a child support modification while in prison, he would come out owing at least $18,000. This could mean many years without the right to vote.

ACLU of Tennessee Executive Director Hedy Weinberg said, ” The ability to vote should not be based on one”s financial status.’

And ACLU Voting Rights Project attorney Nancy Abudu told the Memphis Flyer, “You can’t ignore the racial implications.” Read the full article here

The ACLU charges the law violates the 14th amendment equal protection clause, 24th amendment voting rights provisions, and due process protections in the federal and state constitutions.

The case is not expected to be heard until later this summer, at earliest. As Tennessee is the only state with a child support restriction on ex-offender voting rights, the outcome will have implications for other states tempted to enact similar restrictions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *