Rutherford County, TN Will End $25 Poll Tax

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NASHVILLE, TN – The Rutherford County Clerk of Court will end its practice of charging individuals with felony convictions a fee to regain their freedom to vote, following a settlement agreement reached in federal court. Campaign Legal Center (CLC) represents the Tennessee NAACP (TN NAACP) and five individual citizens with felony convictions in the case, which challenges the state’s failure to provide a clear rights restoration and appeal process across its 95 counties.

Tennessee law requires people with felony convictions to obtain a Certificate of Restoration of Voting Rights (COR) in order to register to vote, but Rutherford County charged a $25 fee per felony conviction to issue CORs, a practice that ends with the settlement of this claim.

"Exercising your freedom to vote should not cost you money,” said Blair Bowie, Legal Counsel & Restore Your Vote Manager at Campaign Legal Center (CLC). "The Tennessee legislature created a pathway for people with felony convictions to restore their rights, but it isn’t working because it is inaccessible and there are no uniform procedures across the state. Rutherford County’s agreement not to charge this poll tax is important progress, eliminating one of the many unnecessary and unconstitutional obstacles for people who are eligible for Certificates of Restoration.”

Of the approximately 360,000 Tennesseans who have completed their felony sentences only 3,415 have regained their freedom to vote since 2016, according to The Sentencing Project.

"Poll taxes have long been used to suppress Black voters and this agreement represents an important victory,” said TN NAACP President Gloria Sweet-Love. "However, there is still a long way to go to make sure that the more than 451,000 Tennesseans, including more than 21% of Black Tennesseans, who are disenfranchised can restore their voting rights.”

Nationally, Tennessee has the third largest population of disenfranchised citizens, the second highest rate of disenfranchisement (9.1%), and the second highest rate of Black disenfranchisement.

"No one should pay for the right to vote. That’s why our Constitution prohibits charging a tax to vote,” said Charles K. Grant, Shareholder at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC, and co-counsel in the lawsuit. "This is an excellent result. We’re pleased that this practice has ended.”

"The settlement eliminates one poll tax, but we still have much work to do to ensure that poverty, and the ability to pay court costs, restitution and child support, does not exclude people from the franchise,” said Dawn Harrington, Executive Director of Free Hearts, which is co-counsel in the lawsuit. "Senate Bill 18 would eliminate all poll taxes in Tennessee.”

"We applaud Rutherford County's recognition that fees should not be charged to restore voting rights after a prior felony convictions,” remarked Phil Telfeyan, Executive Director of Equal Justice Under Law, co-counsel in the lawsuit. "There are still hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans who have the right to vote but are not able to do so; we hope other counties follow Rutherford County's lead by removing financial barriers to re-enfranchisement."

The TN NAACP and impacted individuals filed the lawsuit on Dec. 3, 2020. RestoreYourVote.org is a free online resource run by CLC to help voters navigate state laws, determine their eligibility, and register to vote.