Sullivan County election office in process of purging felons from voter rolls

J. H. Osborne • Sep 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County Election Office workers are trying to find out who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

And who’s been pardoned.

Or placed on “the list” by mistake.

The list being a roster of “supposedly” felons provided by the state of Tennessee.

The county election office, like others statewide, is in the process of making sure convicted felons who shouldn’t be voting have their voter registrations canceled.

“The state has sent a list of, supposedly, people who have been convicted of felonies,” Sullivan County Administrator of Elections Gena Frye said late last month. “Some counties have sent cancellation letters to everyone on the list. And come to find out, not all of them have been convicted of a felony — and some have had their voting rights restored.”

Frye said her office took a different approach.

“We’ve been working with the circuit court clerk’s office,” Frye said. “We’re comparing names on the list and trying to obtain verification and paperwork on convictions before we send out cancellation letters.”

Staff in Frye’s office said no such letters have been mailed, yet. But the mailings will begin soon, in order to purge the necessary voters before any 2008 polling gets under way.

Frye said in the past the circuit court clerk’s office has relied, in part, on self-reporting by convicted felons to determine which names to provide to the election office for ongoing maintenance of voter rolls.

“There was a box on a form (the convicted felon) had to check,” Frye said. “It asked if they were registered to vote. In the past, if that wasn’t checked, the court clerk’s office didn’t send us anything.”

Now the court clerk’s office will regularly send a list of all felony convictions, Frye said, and election office staff will routinely look for matches and remove any registered voters who are convicted of a felony.

Of course, a Sullivan County resident could be convicted of a felony in a different county, Frye said.

“When the circuit court clerk’s office sends us a notice, we take them off our roll,” Frye said. “But if a person didn’t tell us they’ve had a felony somewhere else, we wouldn’t always know right away.”

The state list is supposed to help end that potential problem.

The list of names sent out by the state was generated by comparing a list of convicted felons from all counties with a list of registered voters, Frye said.

In some cases, names on the lists matched — but in some of those cases it’s two different people. And some names ended up on the state list because they were very similar, but some of those, too, are not the same people, Frye said.

“Sometimes it’s just not the right person,” she said.

The state also has compared Social Security numbers provided by registered voters with a national database, Frye said.

It revealed some anomalies.

“In some cases we found people with matching Social Security numbers,” Frye said. “Sometimes it was just a typo. And sometimes it was women, older women, who never had their own Social Security number and they were using their husband’s. That was not unusual at one time. And we’ve had several people who the state has told us are dead — and they’re not dead.”

Frye said she realizes some people might be wondering why the election office is talking about getting ready for “next year’s” elections, with the presidential election more than a year away.

But the start of that election cycle is “not that far down the road,” Frye said, with early voting beginning in mid-January in Tennessee for party primaries for the presidential race.

According to the state’s Web site:

•Article 4, §2 of the Tennessee Constitution provides that the Tennessee legislature may deny the right to vote to persons convicted of “infamous” crimes. Pursuant to this provision in the Tennessee Constitution, the Tennessee legislature has excluded individuals convicted of various felonies from the right of suffrage.

•However, 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.

•When a felony conviction occurred plays a role in how it changes voting rights. There are different rules for three different periods: conviction after May 18, 1981; conviction between Jan. 15, 1973 and May 17, 1981; and conviction prior to Jan. 15, 1973.

Online: http://www.state.tn.us /sos/election/webcrime.htm

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