Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Tennessee

Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Tennessee

March 27, 2014

Current felony disenfranchisement laws

Tennessee has perhaps the most irrational and confusing felony disenfranchisement laws in the nation. People who were convicted before July 1, 1986, must petition a court for restoration of voting rights, and various prosecutors are given an opportunity to object. People convicted after June 30, 1996, are subject to the same rules, except that those convicted of murder, rape, treason, or voter fraud are permanently disenfranchised. These exceptions pertain also to people convicted between July 1, 1986 and July 1, 1996, but others convicted during that period may petition for administrative restoration of rights, without a potentially adversarial court hearing.

Legislative advocacy

2005. The Brennan Center worked with state advocates and the ACLU in 2005 to draft a bill that would streamline and standardize these complex restoration procedures. That bill passed in the state senate but failed by eleven votes in the house.

2006. In 2006, the Tennessee Legislature passed an amended version of the bill. The new law represents a step forward, as it standardizes the restoration process and eliminates any adversarial proceeding. Now, any person convicted of an infamous crime, except some of those convicted of murder, treason, rape, voter fraud, and sexual offenses, receives a certificate of discharge upon completion of their maximum prison sentence or their probation or parole terms. This certificate verifies that the individual is qualified to register and vote.

However, the new legislation also requires people to pay all restitution and be current in child support payments before becoming eligible to register and vote. We will be working with state advocates to fix some of these more problematic provisions and to further streamline the restoration process in the upcoming legislative session.

Litigation

On April 24, 2009, the Brennan Center filed an amicus brief with the 6th Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals in Johnson v. Bredesen, a case that challenges Tennessee's voter restoration law. In Johnson v. Bredesen, plaintiffs, represented by the ACLU, challenge Tennessee's statutory provision which conditions the right to vote of persons with felony convictions on their ability to pay legal financial obligations ("LFOs") - namely child support arrears and/or restitution. The Brennan Center brief argues that Tennessee's law functions as an illegal poll tax in violation of the 24th Amendment, relying on the Amendment's legislative history, case law interpreting the Amendment and policy arguments. More information on the case is available here.

Brennan Center Publications

  • Restoring the Right to Vote, Erika Wood (2009)
    • The Brennan Center’s policy proposal for restoring voting rights for citizens with past criminal convictions.
  • My First Vote (2009)
    • Testimonials of individuals who regained their voting rights after being disenfranchised because of past criminal convictions.
  • De Facto Disenfranchisement, Erika Wood & Rachel Bloom (2008)
    • A report on how complex laws, poorly informed officials, and misinformation lead to the de facto disenfranchisement of citizens with past criminal convictions who are eligible to vote.
  • Racism & Felony Disenfranchisement: An Intertwined History, Erin Kelley (2017)
    • A piece examining the historical roots of criminal disenfranchisement laws that today strip voting rights from millions of U.S. citizens.

For more information about the Brennan Center’s work on Restoring Voting Rights in New York, please contact Makeda Yohannes, at makeda.yohannes@nyu.edu.