Suit Challenges Tennessee’s “Unequal, Inaccessible, Opaque, and Inaccurate” Voting Rights Restoration Process

NASHVILLE, TN – Today, the Tennessee Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and five Tennessee residents – who tried to restore their right to vote in November’s General Election but were denied – filed a lawsuit challenging the systemic failure of Tennessee’s voting rights restoration process. The parties are represented by Campaign Legal Center (CLC), Free Hearts Tennessee, Baker Donelson, and Equal Justice Under Law.

“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 is freezing out communities that have long struggled for equal access,” said Blair Bowie, Legal Counsel & Restore Your Vote Manager at Campaign Legal Center. “Tens of thousands of Tennesseans are eligible for a Certificate of Restoration (COR) and, as a matter of law, have a statutory right to restore their vote upon request. Yet to date, only a small fraction of those individuals have been able to receive their CORs and restore their voting rights because the process as administered by Defendants is unequal, inaccessible, opaque, and inaccurate.”

“Free Hearts has helped thousands of Tennesseans with felony convictions fight to restore their voting rights,” said Free Hearts Legal Advisor Keeda Haynes. “We’ve seen over and over again that people who meet the eligibility criteria are regularly denied their Certificates of Restoration and our statewide officials are passive architects of this voter suppression.”

Over 451,000 Tennesseans have the lost the right to vote because of felony convictions, accounting for 9.1% of the total voting age population but nearly 80% of those individuals have completed their probation and parole and are potentially eligible to restore their voting rights. Unfortunately, fewer than 5% of potentially eligible Tennesseans are ever able to acquire a completed COR and submit it to the Elections Commission for approval. The election division reports that only 3,415 individuals have been granted CORs since 2016 – less than 1% of the post-sentence population.

Governor Bill Lee, Commissioner of the Department of Corrections Tony Parker, Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins, and Secretary of State Tre Hargett are named as defendants in the complaint. The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Tennessee, alleges that defendants violate the U.S. Constitution’s requirements of Procedural Due Process and Equal Protection, as well as components of the National Voter Registration Act. Rutherford County Clerk of Circuit Court, Melissa Harrell, is also sued over the county’s requirement that individuals seeking rights restoration pay a $25 processing fee, effectively a poll tax.

“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 in Tennessee can’t vote because of past convictions – the second highest rate of Black disenfranchisement in the country - and one in ten Latinos – the highest rate of Latino disenfranchisement in the country. 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 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.”