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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Losing candidate says prisoners voted in council election

Losing candidate says prisoners voted in council election

Nashville, Tennessee, 11 August 2011

A Metro Council candidate who lost a close race last week said nine prisoners voted in the election, putting the result in doubt.

But a state official said the inmates flagged by candidate Mary Carolyn Roberts still have their voting rights because they were convicted before 1981.

Roberts said Wednesday that she found the prisoners — including one she claimed is on death row — while going through the list of people who voted in District 20 in West Nashville last week. She said most of them were convicted in other counties and also are incarcerated outside Davidson County.

Roberts lost to Councilman Buddy Baker, who received nine votes more than the minimum he needed to avoid a runoff. Roberts said she also has found other voters — she declined to say how many — who shouldn’t have voted for other reasons, like being moved into other council districts by this year’s census-driven redistricting process. She said she’s leaning toward filing an election challenge but needs to talk to an attorney first.

“I could do it without the prisoners,” Roberts said. “But the prisoners help a great deal.”

But the situation might not be as simple as it would first appear.

Dorinda Carter, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Correction, said felony convictions don’t automatically result in a loss of voting privileges. Joan Nixon, chief deputy with the Davidson County Election Commission, noted that felons convicted between Jan. 15, 1973, and May 17, 1981, can vote regardless. Nixon said the voting status of felons convicted before or after those dates depends on the crime and other factors.

She said James Earl Ray, who was convicted of killing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis in 1968, remained a registered voter because first-degree murder wasn’t considered an “infamous” crime at the time.

Carter said each of the eight prisoners in question that she could find in the state system — Roberts cited one more — was convicted before 1981, the first year all convicted felons lost their voting privileges. She said six of the eight were convicted in counties other than Davidson.

Carter said the inmates Roberts cited are housed at various prisons in Nashville, Hickman County, Morgan County and Lake County.

But if they were registered to vote in Nashville prior to their convictions, and if those convictions occurred before May 17, 1981, they would have been eligible to vote last week.

“You may not like it, but that’s the law,” Davidson County Election Administrator Albert Tieche said.

Roberts also said prisoner William Allen voted while serving time on death row. Allen was convicted in 1968 and isn’t eligible for parole until 2018, according to Department of Correction records. But Carter said Allen actually is serving two life sentences rather than a death sentence, and his murder conviction didn’t take away his voting rights.

Baker’s attorney, Stephen Zralek, said he’s confident the election commission will certify the results Friday. Legal precedent generally calls for letting results at the ballot box stand, he said.

Roberts will have five days to file a formal challenge after the results are certified, Tieche said. The law does not specify if those are calendar days or business days, but Tieche said Roberts probably would have until the end of next week.

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