It wouldn’t be impossible for voters to vote on November 3 anywhere in the United States as it is in southern Tennessee. Ashley Cellar and Milton Thomas are vivid examples of this. This is their story.
One of them lost his right to vote forever, and the other regained his right to vote after a long fight. These Americans have mixed feelings about the upcoming presidential election, and this stirs up a lot of emotions in them.
Voting rights lost forever
At a crowded polling station in Nashville, Tennessee, Ashley looks around a little awkwardly. She says that in a place like this, she feels torn by emotions. “I am happy to see that there is a lot of enthusiasm among people to vote early, but that also makes me sad because I have to live with the idea that I will never be able to stand in line with them to vote.”
Ashley is one of many Americans who lost their right to vote forever. “It makes me feel like I’m not a perfect person. It’s as if my opinion no longer matters.”
The story of Ashley Cellar and Milton Tomnas
in prison? Then don’t vote
Tennessee has the strictest electoral laws in the entire country, and some can be traced back to the days when black Americans did not have the right to vote. These laws discourage voters from voting or – as in Ashley’s case – make it completely impossible.
It is one of the few states where convicted prisoners automatically lose their right to vote. When a person is serving their sentence, it is not the case that this right is automatically restored. Indeed, for serious crimes, the right to vote could be withdrawn forever. More than 6 million Americans were denied the right to vote because they are in prison or have been convicted of a serious crime.
That includes Ashley. She was already in prison at the age of seventeen. “I didn’t live the life I wanted to live. I was abused by my stepfather and I had nothing to go back to,” she says. When she rode in the car with a friend one evening, she said she did not know what was going to happen. While waiting in the car, her boyfriend commits a robbery that kills someone. She is accused of complicity in theft and murder. The judge eventually sentenced her to 25 years in prison.
“I was 17 years old when I entered prison and I was 38 when I was finally allowed out again.” For a few years now, Ashley has been released and is committed to children sentenced at a young age. But she doesn’t give up on her fight either. “I still feel like I’ve been expelled from society and will always fight it – even if it goes against my best judgment. I know I’ve lost my rights forever, but I will always fight for a better world for my children.”
Without the right to vote “No full citizen”
Unlike Ashley, Milton Thomas knows what it means to be able to run in elections. But he also had to dispense with his right to vote for a long time. “The last time I voted was in 1996. That was the time Bill Clinton was aspiring for a second term,” he says.
In the 1990s, he also ended up in prison for a serious crime after a difficult childhood. “I was orphaned when I was 18 and no one is looking at me anymore. I made mistakes that I regret, but I managed to give my life a positive turn. I now have a job like everyone else and take care of my four children. I want to be a full citizen again, but I am.” I do not have the right to vote. “
Once his life gets back on the right track, this continues to bite him down. It is unclear if he will be allowed to vote again or what exactly gets in his way. After a legal battle and a 3-year bureaucratic dedication, it appears his voting rights were not lost forever.
All that prevents him from voting is only paying the administrative costs due to his imprisonment. Almost two thousand dollars in total. But this money he does not have.
“As if I won the lottery”
An organization fighting for the right to vote for ex-prisoners decides to pay off their debts. After more than twenty years, Milton can finally go to the polls again on November 3. He excitedly talks about how closely he followed the political race again for the first time in all these years. “All these years shook my shoulders and left politics behind.”
But this year will finally change. “It’s been 24 years since I set foot on a polling station,” he says with a big smile on his face. “I can’t wait to press this button and cast my vote. I really feel like I won the lottery.”