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.
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.