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She Got Her Voting Rights Back. Now She’s Fighting to Restore Them for Others.

“Voting is one of those fundamental rights that should have never been taken from us in the first place.”

December 2, 2019

UPDATE: On Decem­ber 12, 2019, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signed an exec­ut­ive order restor­ing voting rights to over 100,000 people with convic­tions in their past.

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Thou­sands of Kentucki­ans are unable to vote because of past crim­inal convic­tions. That’s because the state of Kentucky is one of just two states with a current policy of perman­ent felony disen­fran­chise­ment. However, during his campaign, Kentucky Governor-elect Andy Beshear sugges­ted he would prior­it­ize ending that policy — a move suppor­ted by nearly two-thirds of Kentucki­ans.  

Tayna Fogle has been organ­iz­ing for rights restor­a­tion for 15 years with Kentucki­ans for the Common­wealth (KFTC), a grass­roots organ­iz­a­tion work­ing on voter empower­ment, civic engage­ment, and a wide set of social issues with an eye towards a more just soci­ety. The Bren­nan Center’s Ayling Domin­guez spoke with Fogle about her own exper­i­ences with voting and disen­fran­chise­ment.

This inter­view has been edited for clar­ity and length.

Could you tell us a bit about your­self and how you came to be involved with efforts to restore voting rights?

I am a mother of 2, a grand­mother of 11, a gradu­ate of the Univer­sity of Kentucky, and a former captain of the women’s basket­ball team. In 1991, I received a 10-year sentence for a non-viol­ent crime. It is a joy to be able to share some­thing that looks like a tragedy on its surface, but that really turned out to be a beau­ti­ful story.

I remem­ber it like it was just yester­day. Some months after my release and comple­tion of a recov­ery program, I was intro­duced to these guys in green and yellow shirts who turned out to be with Kentucki­ans for the Common­wealth, and for the first time, it felt like I had found a group of people who didn’t judge me, who wanted to hear the story just like you are now, and who helped me find my voice. Through that organ­iz­a­tion, I was empowered to believe that my story was import­ant for other folks to learn from and to let the community, the state of Kentucky, and the nation know that just because I had made a mistake didn’t mean that I was a mistake.

Every day when I wake up, I ask myself: Who can I help today? Who will cross my path that I can encour­age? Because that is how you rise from the ashes.  

How has Kentuck­y’s perman­ent voting ban affected you and your community?

For me and the people I work with, voting is about more than just getting to show your support at the ballot box for a pres­id­ent with the same color skin as me. For us, it is close to home. It is real local. We want to have a say in who sits on our school board and on our city coun­cil, where the new brew­ery or fact­ory is getting built, and how that affects gentri­fic­a­tion and displace­ment in our neigh­bor­hoods. We want to vote to be able to stand up for the issues we care about in our communit­ies. Voting means the possib­il­ity of having a city coun­cil that reflects what the city and community actu­ally look like.

The perman­ent voting ban has pushed us to ask over and over: Can you see us? We’re here. We’re not going away. We are product­ive members of our community and soci­ety. We want to be engaged. We want to be valued. We are whole people. We want to put a stop to the revolving door that is the prison system and its collat­eral consequences. That’s what voting would allow us to fully do. That’s why voting is import­ant.

What obstacles did you have to over­come in order to get your voting rights back?

I went to prison, I completed the 10 years, and I came home to find that I had lost my right to vote. I really could­n’t believe it. It felt like double jeop­ardy. The judge told me to do these 10 years, I did them, I came out to try and be a product­ive member of soci­ety — and I worked really hard, and I’m still work­ing hard at it — and I was told I could­n’t be.

I did everything I could to get my voting rights back. I jumped through all the hoops — paid the fee, wrote the essay, and acquired three impec­cable char­ac­ter refer­ences. These things serve as added layers of disen­fran­chise­ment for those who are illit­er­ate and cannot write the essay, or do not have suffi­cient income to pay the fee. Even­tu­ally, I ended up walk­ing my applic­a­tion straight to the governor’s office myself. Finally, my right to vote was restored.

What did it feel like when you could finally vote again?

I was so excited. I had been wait­ing for the day that I could finally go and cast my vote. I went into the voting booth, and I was shell-shocked. When my mom took me with her and taught me how to vote, there was a handle that you would pull like a slot machine to submit your choices. The set-up was so differ­ent that I didn’t know what to do! That’s why voter educa­tion is so import­ant.

I asked the poll work­ers and they told me how the ballot machine worked. I voted and I got the little pin that read “I Voted!” My hands were shak­ing with excite­ment so much that I had to ask the poll worker if she could pin it on me because I could­n’t myself. It felt like the first time my mom had taken me to the polls. I could­n’t wait to go and show every­body that I had this pin that showed that I had voted! I ran to KFTC and told them, “I voted today!”

Every time I go into the polling booth now, I feel that same excite­ment and I know I’m making my mother proud. And now, I’m trying to show my grand­chil­dren that we matter, that our voices matter, and that we can change things.

I am happy. I truly am. I am blessed.

You’re still organ­iz­ing for voting rights in the community with Kentucki­ans for the Common­wealth. Why is re-enfran­chise­ment a cause you care about?

Voting is one of those funda­mental rights that should have never been taken from us in the first place. My grand­mother and my mother taught us that voting is so import­ant, that our kinfolk died for us to have that right. My grand­mother was one of those people hosed in the race riots. Her and my mother came through the struggle, so I have always known the import­ance of the vote. Voting is more than just a family tradi­tion, it is our history.

What I know to be true is that for folks like myself, once we become civically engaged and feel as though we are part of our communit­ies, recidiv­ism rates go down. The joy of serving our community and allow­ing our chil­dren and our grand­chil­dren to see that we can live a better life, that we made mistakes but we are not mistakes, is crucial to re-entry.

I can’t wait for the day when hundreds of thou­sands of Kentucki­ans living and work­ing in the community can finally get their right to vote back. I can envi­sion all 100,000-plus of us having a party out on our front lawns with our “I Voted!” stick­ers, proud of being civically engaged members of our state and coun­try. I can just see it.