Denver Schimming was a leader in the campaign that successfully pressured the Tennessee Legislature in 2007 to approve a bill that simplified the voting rights restoration process for people who have completed a felony sentence.
As a previously incarcerated person who had his voting rights restored in 1996, Schimming appreciates the power and importance of voting. His years in prison taught him that the criminal justice system could change only if impacted people spoke out. After his incarceration, voting was one of his highest priorities. “My story really starts in July of 1991; after a week of severe alcohol abuse, deep depression and deep desperation, I walked into Dominion Bank in Tennessee and robbed it,” he recalled in 2007, then a 49-year-old Tennessee sales executive.
Schimming served 46 months in federal prison in Texas. When he was released, in his pocket was a one-way bus ticket to Nashville, a little money he’d saved from his dollar-an-hour job in prison, and the clothes on his back.
“It took me nearly a decade to put the pieces back together that I’d shattered when I committed the crime. I literally was starting from scratch,” said Schimming. “The collateral damage that a person experiences when they go through the criminal justice system can be devastating. I just needed to go to work. When a person comes out of prison, the last thing on your mind is voting.”
But the idea of voting soon resurfaced after the Goodlettsville resident continued to run into barriers that challenged his civil rights. For a while, he researched how to regain his voting rights and realized the state’s re-enfranchisement policy was extremely convoluted, Schimming said.
“Because you went to prison, you feel like you’re not fully vested, like a second class citizen,” he said. “But when you’re afforded the opportunity to vote, you think, ‘Yes, I am fully vested in my city, state, [and] country. I’m just as much a citizen as anyone else. I think it shows rehabilitation; I think it shows a mindset that you’re looking forward, not backward. No one should ever lose that right because of a felony conviction.”
After more inquiry, Schimming discovered he had regained his right to vote. According to the laws at the time, an individual’s rights were automatically restored if the felony conviction had occurred between 1986 and 1996. People convicted of a felony during other periods had to get an attorney to petition the court.
“In January 2005, I attended a Tennessee Democratic Women’s meeting; the subject that night was felony disenfranchisement. Even though I had been disenfranchised, this was the first time I’d heard of that,” he said. “After the meeting was over, I realized that this was absolutely wrong. I had to do something as an ex-felon. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I had to do something.”
In 2005, it was Schimming’s face that helped set in motion a change in Tennessee’s rights restoration law. He rallied with the ACLU, lobbied over 40 state legislators, testified before Senate and House Judiciary Committees, and appeared on radio, TV and in the print media to educate and push for a change.
“I literally spoke to any group that would hear me tell my story, about where I was 10 years ago, and how it impacted my voting rights. I was introduced to State Representative Larry Turner, who had a disenfranchisement bill on the Hill for 20 years. From that moment, I became immersed in the work,” Schimming recalled.
After an 18-month campaign, the bill passed in July 2006, approving a single restoration process for individuals who have completed their sentences, including parole and probation, and have paid all outstanding fines. However, the legislature added an amendment to the bill that denies restoration of voting rights to individuals who are not current on their child support payments, even though no such provision applies to other voters.
Schimming was married in 1997 by the same federal judge who imposed his sentence years ago. The judge had since become his friend and supporter. Schimming is also the father of a University of Tennessee graduate.
“This work with the felony bill… like a glove, just fit,” said Schimming. “It just really lit a fire under me. I think government — when it works right, is just really true public service. When it does work… it can really help someone.”