Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Tennessee

Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Tennessee

February 9, 2018

Current felony disenfranchisement laws

In 2005, the Brennan Center worked with state advocates and the ACLU to draft a bill that would streamline and standardize what were perhaps the most irrational and confusing felony disenfranchisement laws in the nation. In 2006, the Tennessee Legislature passed an amended version of the bill. The law represented a step forward, as it standardized the restoration process and eliminated any requirement that a person seeking restoration petition for that right and litigate the issue in court.

Now, any person convicted of a felony, with some restrictions, will receive the right to vote upon completion of one’s sentence, fulfillment of all legal financial obligations (namely child support and restitution), and completion of a certificate of restoration. Effectively, this 2006 law made the rights restoration process more objective and removed the requirement that the formerly incarcerated appear before a circuit court judge in an adversarial proceeding to re-gain the right to vote.

Tennessee, however, still permanently disenfranchises those convicted of certain crimes, particularly murder, rape, treason, and voter fraud—and, confusingly, these carveouts vary based on the year of the conviction. Tennessee also requires people to pay all legal financial obligations, fines, and fees before they may have their right to vote restored, a provision that places an enhanced burden on low-income individuals.

It is important to note that those who were convicted of a felony between 1973-1981 never lost their right to vote.

Litigation

On April 24, 2009, the Brennan Center filed an amicus brief in Johnson v. Bredesen, a case brought by the ACLU that challenged this requirement that all fees be paid before rights restoration. The Brennan Center brief argued this functioned as an illegal poll tax. Unfortunately, the 6th Circuit ruled against Johnson on October 28, 2010. 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.