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Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Tennessee

Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Tennessee.

Published: 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.


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 Tennessee, please contact Derek Paul­hus, at paul­hus­d@bren­