21 July 2023
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee has begun requiring felons who want their voting rights back to first get their full citizenship rights restored by a judge or show they were pardoned.
Election officials say the step is required after a June court ruling. But attorneys representing the state’s disenfranchised felons accuse officials of searching for ways to suppress Black voters.
On Friday, Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins sent a memo to local elections officials informing them of the new requirement. The secretary of state’s website was updated as well.
Tennessee previously had set up a process under a 2006 law for felons to petition for the restoration of their voting rights. It allows them to seek restoration if they can show they have served their sentences and do not owe any outstanding court costs or child support.
The Campaign Legal Center is already suing Tennessee in federal court over the way it implements that law. They argue, among other things, that the state has failed to make clear which officials can sign the necessary forms, provides no criteria for denial, and offers no avenue for appeal. The class action lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in November.
In adding the new requirement that a person must also show they were pardoned or had their citizenship restored by a judge, Tennessee’s elections coordinator pointed to a recent state Supreme Court decision from June 29. In that case, the justices ruled against a man who sought to register to vote in the state after receiving clemency for a crime committed decades ago in Virginia.
Ernest Falls, the plaintiff, moved to Tennessee in 2018. In 2020, then-Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam granted Falls clemency, restoring his full rights of citizenship. But when Falls tried to register to vote in Tennessee, he was prevented from doing so. Election officials said he still had to go through the voting rights restoration process promulgated in 2006.
The high court pointed to two different sections of the law that were written at different times. There is the 2006 section, and there is a 1980s section that prohibits most felons from voting in Tennessee unless their rights as citizens have been restored.
A 2006 change to state law also adds the ability for people who were convicted in Tennessee or federal courts to apply for their voting rights to be restored with a notice from correctional authorities that they’re finished serving their time. But lawmakers didn’t remove the 1980s requirement about getting back their citizenship rights. That left it up to the court to decide whether people could get their rights back by complying with only one section of the law, or if they had to comply with both.
The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that despite having his full rights of citizenship restored, Falls still had to go through the process of restoring his voting rights.
Election officials interpret that to mean both steps are required, regardless of where someone was convicted.
Goins’ letter to local election officials acknowledges that the judges limited the scope of the Falls ruling to the facts of that particular case. It also states that the ruling requires the policy change because the statute for in-state and federal felonies “closely aligns” with the wording of the law discussed in the Falls case.
“No matter where someone was convicted, a pardon or restoration of the full rights of citizenship is required as the first step of the process,” according to a frequently asked questions document by the state elections office.
People who have already had their voting rights restored without a pardon or court order will remain eligible to vote, according to the state’s frequently asked questions document.
Blair Bowie, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center, which also brought the Falls case, said the new requirement “makes it nearly impossible to restore your right to vote.” She noted it would require someone to obtain a lawyer and pay filing fees in addition to other hurdles.
Lawmakers in 2006 clearly intended to create a path for felons to restore their voting rights, Bowie argued, and the new rules are the “elections division usurping the power of the legislature.”
“They’ve just effectively closed the door for those people to get their voting rights restored, even when they met these criteria that the legislature set out,” she said.
Meanwhile, Tennessee has more than 470,000 estimated disenfranchised felons, she said, citing a report from The Sentencing Project. The report states that 9% of Tennessee’s voting age population is disenfranchised because of a felony conviction. That’s even higher for African Americans at more than 21%.