Tennessee disenfranchises more than 451,000 of its residents for past felony convictions, about 9.1% of its total voting age population. These individuals remain unable to vote for life unless they are able to restore their voting rights.
Over 14 years ago, the Tennessee Legislature created a pathway to voting rights restoration, providing that residents who meet certain criteria must be issued a Certificate of Restoration of voting rights (COR) upon request. However, statewide officials have failed to implement adequate procedures, leading to a rights restoration process that is unequal, inaccessible, opaque, and inaccurate. CLC, along with its partners including Free Hearts Tennessee, has filed suit to create a COR process that actually allows eligible Tennesseans to restore their voting rights.
Tennessee law makes clear that an individual who meets certain criteria—including completion of sentence and certain legal financial obligations—has a statutory right to a COR. The Tennessee Governor, Director of the Department of Correction, Coordinator of Elections, and Secretary of State are responsible for managing the COR process. But due to their failure to administer the law properly, the process is not uniform or objective. It is opaque, decentralized, inaccurate, and inaccessible.
By statute, if a COR is requested by an eligible Tennessean, it must be completed by an official of the “pardoning authority or incarcerating authority” – meaning the Governor or the Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC). But neither the Governor nor TDOC has implemented adequate policies, guidance, or directives to comply with that requirement. Many eligible and potentially-eligible Tennesseans have nowhere to go to begin the COR process, navigating a maze to find an official willing to complete the COR. If they are actually able to find an official who will consider completing the COR, there are no uniform procedures for determining if that person meets the eligibility criteria. A person with the same facts surrounding their conviction and service of the terms of their sentence may get a different result depending on their county of conviction and which official in that county is making the determination of their eligibility. A refusal to fill out the COR comes with no statement of reasons; the person is simply turned away. There is no way to appeal.
This lack of guardrails and uniform policies creates a high risk of wrongful denial of the voting rights restoration. Erroneous deprivation of CORs occurs regularly. Nearly 80% of the disenfranchised population has completed their probation and parole and are potentially eligible to restore their voting rights, but fewer than 5% of potentially eligible Tennesseans are ever able to acquire a completed COR and attempt to register to vote. Only 3,415 individuals have been granted CORs since 2016 – less than 1% of the post-sentence population. Until remedies are implemented, fully eligible Tennesseans will continue to be erroneously denied restoration of their voting rights.
This suit argues that the current administration of CORs violates the U.S. Constitution’s requirements of procedural due process as well as the Equal Protection Clause. CLC is seeking a court order that would force the state to streamline the administration of CORs to ensure accuracy and equal treatment.
At least one county, Rutherford County, charges a fee for production of the COR to eligible individuals, denying the COR—and thus the right to vote—to those who cannot pay. The suit also contends that this fee constitutes a poll tax in violation of the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Finally, the suit alleges that elements of Tennessee’s voter registration process violate the NVRA and creates additional, unnecessary barriers to the franchise for individuals with felony convictions even when they never lost the right to vote or have already had their voting rights restored.