Tennessee government denies the right to vote to more than 470,000 people who have served their time for a felony conviction. Lawmakers say there is no viable path for regaining their voting rights.

Lawmakers ask feds to investigate ‘unconstitutional’ denial of voting rights in Tennessee

Letter: ‘We have reached a crisis point‘ from decisions made by Republican state election officials

Tennessee Senate Democrats
5 min readFeb 29, 2024

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WASHINGTON, D.C.—A group of state lawmakers is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in the Volunteer State, where they say Republican state election officials are illegally obstructing the voting rights of people who have served their time for a conviction and yet have no viable path to cast a ballot.

A letter signed by 22 Democratic lawmakers accuses the state’s Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins of imposing an “illegal and unconstitutional” scheme to “prevent virtually any eligible applicants” from exercising voting rights restored by law.

“We urge the Department of Justice to immediately open an investigation into the decisions made here in Tennessee and to bring appropriate legal action to vindicate the rights of Tennesseans, who have had their right to vote restored by law but have had their exercise of that right illegally obstructed,” the letter to the department’s Civil Rights Division states.

Their request for a Justice Department investigation into Tennessee’s fraught voting rights restoration process follows a decision made by Coordinator Goins to bar people from casting a ballot unless they first restore their gun rights. Because Tennessee law prohibits the same people from ever legally owning firearms again, his decision created a backdoor mechanism to permanently disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters, even though state law expressly makes them eligible for voting rights restoration.

Tennessee denies the right to vote to more than 470,000 citizens because of felony convictions and leads the nation in disenfranchisement of Black citizens at a “staggering rate of just over 21%,” the letter states, citing data from The Sentencing Project.

“Every American who returns from incarceration deserves a fair process to restore their voting rights, but that’s not happening in Tennessee, where more than 470,000 people, many of whom are Black, have no viable path to regain their constitutional right to participate in our democracy,” said Sen. Charlane Oliver, whose office sent the letter. “We believe this rigged process stands in clear violation of state and federal law, yet we have found no partnership from the controlling party to remedy this grave injustice.

“We are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene on behalf of these citizens and curb the overreach of Tennessee’s state government,” Sen. Oliver said. “This is about restoring dignity, fairness, and the fundamental right to vote for those seeking redemption and reintegration into our democratic society.”

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a constitutional lawyer who co-signed the letter, says state law clearly requires a workable process for restoring voting rights.

“Tennessee laws have been twisted beyond recognition to create an impenetrable maze that makes it virtually impossible for these eligible voters to ever cast a vote,” Sen. Yarbro said. “We, as legislators, can always seek to improve the laws, but Tennesseans right now are not getting the benefit of laws already on the books.”

Rep. Caleb Hemmer, another co-signer, underscored the expansive consequences of the state government’s aggressive efforts to deny voting rights to Tennesseans and make rights restoration work more difficult.

“We take no pleasure in bringing this issue to the attention of the Justice Department and we do so only as a last resort,” Rep. Hemmer said. “Years of efforts by legislators, nonprofit groups and citizens have not been able to resolve our systemic issues with voter suppression, and now Tennesseans are experiencing wholesale disenfranchisement on a scale larger than anywhere in the nation.”

Here are the names of lawmakers who signed the letter to Kristen Clarke, the Assistant Attorney General over the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department: Sen. Charlane Oliver, Rep. Caleb Hemmer, Sen. Jeff Yarbro, Rep. Sam McKenzie, Rep. Vincent Dixie, Rep. Bob Freeman, Sen. Heidi Campbell, Rep. Justin. J. Pearson, Rep. Aftyn Behn, Rep. Bo Mitchell, Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, Rep. Torrey Harris, Rep. Gloria Johnson, Rep. John Ray Clemmons, Rep. Jason Powell, Sen. Raumesh Akbari, Rep. Johnny Shaw, Rep. Larry Miller, Sen. London Lamar, Rep. Antonio Parkinson, Rep. Harold Love, Jr., Sen. Sara Kyle.

Think tank explains confusing process

Tennesseans seeking to regain their voting rights previously had multiple options for restoration, but in 2023 the state updated its procedure to combine the previous options into one multi-step requirement. As a result, the voting rights restoration process in Tennessee is now longer, more confusing, and even more redundant than before, according to a policy brief released by ThinkTennessee, a nonpartisan think tank.

Prior to 2006, Tennesseans could receive a pardon or petition a court to have their full citizenship rights –the right to vote, own a gun, run for office, and serve on a jury — restored. Then in 2006, changes to the process were made that allowed Tennesseans to have just their voting rights restored through a Certificate of Voting Rights Restoration (COR), rather than seeking restoration of their full citizenship rights. Most recently in July 2023, however, the state coordinator of elections issued a directive that now requires Tennesseans seeking to restore their voting rights must complete both a pardon or petition and a COR.

Even before the most recent change, restoring voting rights in Tennessee was complicated and confusing. Issues with the process include ambiguity around which officials are responsible for providing required information, inaccessible data on the payment status of legal financial obligations, and challenges coordinating with other states’ officials for Tennesseans with out-of-state convictions.

According to ThinkTennessee, “The voting rights restoration process in other states is simpler and more efficient. 26 states, including Louisiana, return voting rights eligibility upon sentence completion. Tennessee is one of just eight states that requires additional steps after sentence completion to demonstrate eligibility, though most others explain their application processes more clearly.”

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Tennessee Senate Democrats

Fighting for everyday people in the Tennessee General Assembly