Tony Pegel has always thought of himself as an honest man.
So he was surprised when he found out he had been voting illegally for 16 years.
“In reviewing the new laws on voter status for felons, I discovered there might be a problem with my voter registration status,” Pegel explained. “The laws had changed numerous times in the three decades since my conviction and I was unsure of what the current requirements were.”
This revelation led Pegel to have his voter’s registration purged in December 2010 before having his voting rights restored and re-registering in April.
He thought he had put the situation behind him until State Sen. Bill Ketron used him to illustrate the need for stricter voting laws in Tennessee during a press conference in late September.
Ketron alleged Pegel, a vice chairman of the Rutherford County Democratic Party, voted illegally 18 times from 1992 until he asked to be purged from the voter rolls in December 2010.
“This is not about restoration of voting rights for felons. There is a process for that,” Ketron said. “This is about following the laws we have on the books. That was not what happened for 16 years here as he was ineligible under Tennessee law.”
But Pegel contended he thought he was following the law.
He was convicted of robbing the Smokey Mountain Market in East Tennessee in 1984. He served 10 years probation, three supervised and seven unsupervised, and was eligible to apply to have his rights restored in 1994, two years after he registered to vote.
Pegel said his probation officer told him he would be eligible to vote after seven years.
In Tennessee people convicted of a felony since 1981, with some notable exceptions like those convicted of murder, rape and treason, may apply to have their voting rights restored after their sentence is complete.
Pegel’s sentence was completed in 1994, but he didn’t apply to have his rights restored, because he didn’t think he needed to file paperwork to get them back.
He registered to vote in 1992, waiting to cast a ballot until after his probation was over, he explained.
During the press conference, Ketron produced documentation from the Rutherford County Election Commission, which shows Pegel checked “yes” on the voter registration form where it asks if the applicant has been convicted of a felony.
However Pegel failed to notify the Election Commission what he had been convicted of and that his rights had not been restored.
“This was 20 years ago, I remember thinking, this is all they want,” Pegel said about filling out his voter application. “I just had to trust they knew what they were doing.”
A few weeks later he received a voter registration card in the mail.
In a previous interview, Rutherford County Elections Administrator Nicole Lester said it would be difficult for a felon to stay on the rolls as long as Pegel did in this day and computer age.
The Election Commission now purges voters daily with lists of recently deceased voters and recently convicted felons from the state election commission and courts.
But back in 1992, there was no real way to purge voting rolls as easily.
“Whoever processed him put him on by mistake,” Lester said. “And he voted for years.”
Pegel said he thought he was legal since the Election Commission sent him a voter registration card.
“I assumed I was legal; the Election Commission assumed I was legal; the state assumed I was legal,” Pegel said.
But he wasn’t legal.
He said, he said
This opened the door for Ketron to tout his new law at the press conference. The voter ID law into effect in January and requires a photo ID to be produced when voting.
“There has been much in the media lately regarding the frequency of ineligible voting, with many Democrats and media sources reporting that there is little or no fraud in Tennessee,” Ketron said. “This is not factual. Today we (brought) forth a prime example of ineligible voting by a ranking local Democratic officer.”
Jonathon Fagan, former county Democratic Party chairman, brought the information about Pegel to Ketron.
Fagan said he told Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester, who never returned his calls. He finally approached Ketron, because he is concerned about the leadership of the Democratic Party in the state.
The state Democratic Party denied Fagan approached Forrester about Pegel’s criminal record.
“Jonathan Fagan has never reached out to chairman Forrester about this situation or any other alleged voting fraud in Rutherford County or anywhere else in the state,” Democratic Party Spokesman Brandon Puttbrese said. “Furthermore, Jonathan Fagan was the chair of the Rutherford County Democratic Party and, if he was so concerned about it, why didn’t he do something?”
Which is exactly the question Pegel asked after the press conference.
After he began questioning his voting status, Pegel said he went to Fagan with his concerns.
“Mr. Fagan would not accept my resignation and urged that I remain active in the party. He also urged me not to begin the process of re-registration until after the November 2010 elections,” Pegel said. He added he has always been open about his past by telling people about his prior conviction and how he turned his life around.
Fagan said he did speak with Pegel about how to legally register felons in general after Pegel, who was the chair of the voter registration committee in the run up to the 2010 elections, had asked what the proper procedure was.
“The conversation ended there,” Fagan said, adding Pegel didn’t specifically say he was concerned about his own status.
Fagan explained he discovered Pegel’s felony arrest after his name was floated to party leaders to replace Denice Rucker on the Rutherford County Election Commission in the spring.
“All the names considered are always checked, their voting history, whether they voted in Democratic primaries and against the state felon list,” Fagan said.
The search found Pegel had no voting record and that he had been purged from the rolls.
Further research found his voting record in the Rutherford County voting archives, his re-registration and paperwork for having his voting rights restored in April, Fagan explained.
Pegel contended he told Fagan about his questions 15 months ago.
“Mr. Fagan, along with most county officers, was well aware of this entire process. For Mr. Fagan to say otherwise is completely false,” Pegel said
As for why the former party chairman came forward with the information, Pegel is stumped.
“I’ve never said a bad thing about Mr. Fagan,” Pegel said. “I don’t understand his motivations.”
Ketron’s motivations, on the other hand, are clear to him.
Pegel thinks it was a letter to the editor published in the Daily News Journal that brought Ketron into the fray.
“He couldn’t attack my argument so he attacked me,” Pegel said.