Campaign Legal Center (CLC) is representing two Tennessee citizens, Ernest Falls and Artie Bledsoe, who want to exercise their right to vote. Tennesseans, like these plaintiffs, who have been convicted of felonies in other states have an established legal right to vote in Tennessee if their rights of citizenship have been restored in the state of their conviction. This lawsuit seeks to verify that established legal right.
Under Tennessee law, a person convicted of a felony in another state is eligible to register to vote in Tennessee if their civil rights have been restored in the state where they were convicted. The law is clear but has not been communicated by public officials, however, so many Tennesseans who met that requirement assumed that they were disenfranchised. Late last year, CLC worked to clarify that path and solicited the Elections Division to recognize it in writing. However, Tennessee then abruptly reversed course and is now requiring individuals with out-of-state felony convictions to meet additional burdensome requirements that are erroneous under state law.
Although there are several pathways to voting rights restoration for Tennessee citizens with felony convictions, they are under-publicized, complicated, and not used often. The state’s most recent reversal on the rights restoration requirements for those with out-of-state convictions only adds to Tennesseans’ confusion and unlawfully denies people the right to vote. This case is part of CLC’s ongoing efforts to ensure that Tennesseans whom the legislature has deemed fit to vote again actually have a chance to do so, regardless of burdensome and unnecessary administrative barriers.
Across the country, people reentering their communities after serving felony sentences face barriers to participating fully in society. Restoring the right to vote is an important step in the reentry process for returning citizens. It increases participation in democracy and reduces recidivism, making our society stronger.
Unfortunately, Tennessee likely has the highest rate of disenfranchisement in the nation; the state denies the right to vote to over 421,000 of its citizens based on felony convictions. Further, the Black community is disproportionately impacted – more than 21% of the Black voting age population is disenfranchised – likely the highest rate of black felony disenfranchisement in the country.
The criminal punishment system and mass incarceration already harm communities of color in countless ways. To ensure equity in representation and have a chance to remedy systemic problems in society, people who return to our communities from prison need to be able to participate in the democratic process and to make their voices heard.
Statewide, there is bipartisan support for restoring voting rights to those convicted of a felony who have completed all terms of their sentence. Indeed, 67% of registered voters polled in Tennessee – including 60% of Republicans and 78% of Democrats – favor rights restoration upon reentry.
The court should confirm what Tennessee law makes plain: individuals who have out-of-state felony convictions but have had their rights of citizenship restored in the state of conviction are voters.
Learn more about the legal action that CLC is taking.