Lawsuit Challenging Tennessee Voting Rights Restoration Process Moves Toward Trial

Issues

Nashville, TN – Last week, the U.S. Court for the Middle District of Tennessee rejected the state’s attempt to dismiss challenges to the systemic failures of Tennessee’s voting rights restoration process for people with prior felony convictions. The case now heads toward trial.

Campaign Legal Center (CLC), Free Hearts Tennessee, Baker Donelson and Equal Justice Under Law are representing the Tennessee Conference of the NAACP and five Tennesseans seeking to restore their right to vote in a lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s complicated voting rights restoration process.

Tennessee law allows people who meet certain criteria after a felony conviction to request and be issued a Certificate of Restoration of Voting Rights (COR). The state of Tennessee filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit’s claims that state officials have failed to implement a process for obtaining CORs that fulfills the minimum requirements of the United States Constitution, leaving Tennesseans with past felonies at high risk of being deprived of their right to vote. The district court’s ruling rejected the state’s motion to dismiss, and the lawsuit will now proceed to trial.

“Our most fundamental right as Americans is the right to vote, but for far too many people, that right is being denied because of a process that freezes out communities that have struggled for equal access for too long,” said Blair Bowie, senior legal counsel and Restore Your Vote manager at Campaign Legal Center. “The decision to allow these claims to proceed is the first step towards fixing Tennessee’s unequal, inaccessible, opaque and inaccurate voting rights restoration process.”

Tennessee’s voting rights restoration process was recently thrust into the national spotlight when Shelby County resident Pamela Moses was sentenced to six years and one day in prison for submitting a COR filled out by a probation officer which contained an error.

“Pamela Moses’ case showed that the people trying to restore their voting rights always unfairly bear the costs of Tennessee’s negligence, whether they are wrongly told they are ineligible or wrongly told they are eligible.” said Keeda Haynes, legal advisor at Free Hearts. “It’s high time the state creates a centralized process where Tennesseans can get an official answer on their eligibility and allow for an appeal if they feel that answer is wrong.”

“Felony disenfranchisement disproportionately harms Black people and other communities of color,” said Gloria Sweet-Love, president of the Tennessee NAACP. “One in five Black people and one in ten Latinos in Tennessee can’t vote because of past convictions. That is the second highest rate of Black disenfranchisement in the country, and the highest rate of Latino disenfranchisement. The legislature created a pathway for members of our communities to restore their rights, but these officials have failed to create a system that works.”

“The problems with the defendants’ system are avoidable and easily fixed,” said Charles Grant, shareholder at Baker Donelson. “Until remedies are implemented, fully eligible Tennesseans will continue to be erroneously denied restoration of their voting rights. This suit seeks to compel Defendants to do their jobs and administer the COR process in a manner that passes basic constitutional muster.”

“There is no right more basic to the health of a democracy than the right to vote, and Tennessee’s failed rights restoration scheme means the unlawful exclusion of hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans from the political process,” said Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Equal Justice Under Law. “Tennessee is effectively silencing many of its people, but today that silence ends.”

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