US street paper vendors on being denied voting rights as former felons when the democratic process is more important than ever

Interviews by Hannah Herner, The Contributor

Coronavirus has even upended democracy. In a recent Wisconsin Democratic Primary vote, very little accommodation was made to ensure people could get out to vote, and do so safely. It’s a worry ahead of an important Presidential election set for later this year. If the current circumstances continue, the situation may end up actively stopping people from voting. But the US already has all sorts of different restrictions hampering the ability of its citizens to vote. Nashville street paper The Contributor welcomes people with past felony charges who want to become vendors. In the US, a person’s right to vote is taken away when they are charged with a felony. Vendors Paul and Shawn have charges that happened more than 25 years ago, and they have not been able to get their voting rights restored. Here are their stories.

Contributor vendor Paul. [Credit: Hannah Herner]

Paul A.

It would mean a whole lot if I could vote. I do believe that everybody should have that right to do what their conscience says. If I had the right or privilege back, I think would help the people that are running for office—maybe we can get somebody in there that would have some common sense. When you get the privilege back it does help build self-esteem; like you’re accomplishing something. Once you’re stamped as a felon you lose everything. You lose your right to vote; sometimes your place to live. It’s harder to find jobs. It hurts you all the way around. One mistake and you’re screwed. Everybody has to learn by their mistakes.

We need to have better bus services. I’d like to vote on that. Cutting property taxes—I’d like to vote on something like that. Voting on, if they have it, healthcare. [I’d also like to vote] on what they’re going to do for the homeless, because I’d like to see people get in office who are going to do something for the homeless instead of sweeping the homeless up and under the rug.

Contributor vendor Shawn. [Credit: Hannah Herner]

Shawn L.

Me, I’m not a voter. I can’t vote. And the reason why is because I’m a felon.

If I had a chance to vote, you want the people you’re voting for to do what they say they’re going to do. Don’t say that you’re going to do this [when in fact] you can’t do it, or you don’t do it. Voting, yes, it does bring good opportunities—but you just want the people that you’re voting for to be realistic [about what they can achieve].

I’ve been out for almost 13 years now, and I had 20 years in. You’ve always got people who are trying to criticise you. When you’re trying to do right, they’re trying to see the wrong in you. Anything that you do, they look at you as a criminal.

Whether you can vote or not vote, it’s a question. You gotta really look into who you’re actually voting for. Sometimes I wish I could vote, and sometimes I’m glad I can’t vote. And if I can’t vote for them and I know they’re doing positive things then I’m going to represent them [instead]. On my corner, I’m going to wear my T-shirt and I’m going to wear my hat. I’m going to pass out flyers to people that I know. My mother used to campaign and work in the offices to help people become mayor or president. So that’s where I get it from.