Tennessee Now One of Three States with Permanent Felony Disenfranchisement After New Administrative Guidance Torpedoes Voting Rights Restoration

Today, Tennessee issued guidance to election officials that short-circuits the longstanding Certificate of Restoration (COR) process and creates a new requirement that all people with past felony convictions must also receive either a court order or gubernatorial clemency to restore their right to vote. In so doing, Tennessee joins only Mississippi and Virginia in imposing permanent felony disenfranchisement on its citizens. 

In response, Blair Bowie, director of Campaign Legal Center’s Restore Your Vote initiative, issued the following statement: 

“Campaign Legal Center strongly condemns the illogical guidance released today by the Tennessee Elections Division which effectively destroys the voting rights restoration process created by the Tennessee legislature.  

Today’s guidance proves what the Elections Division has already shown to be true: Tennessee will use every tool imaginable to unlawfully and unfairly deny its citizens the freedom to vote. The decision flies in the face of the Tennessee legislature’s clear intent to create a voting rights restoration process that did not require going to court or a gubernatorial pardon. This deeply cynical move mirrors the Florida legislature’s 2019 law that undid voting rights restoration passed by the voters of the state.  

The guidance states that individuals who have lost the right to vote because of a felony conviction must both go through Tennessee’s administrative voting rights restoration process (called a Certificate of Restoration) and restore their rights of citizenship through a pardon or court petition. This effectively closes the door to voting rights restoration for over 470,000 Tennesseans. Tennessee has the second largest disenfranchised population in the country, second only to Florida, and disenfranchises over 20% of its Black citizens, the highest rate of Black disenfranchisement in the country. 

The guidance is a beyond-the-pale interpretation of a recent Tennessee Supreme Court decision, Falls v. Goins, which stated that a Tennessean with a Virginia state conviction who had been granted clemency by the Virginia governor also needed to show that he met the criteria for administrative rights restoration in Tennessee, including payment of court costs. The case arose because the Elections Division reversed its earlier position that an individual with an out-of-state conviction was only disenfranchised unless they had restored their citizenship rights in the state of conviction or Tennessee. The Elections Division never once argued during that case that individuals with out-of-state convictions would need to seek both a restoration of citizenship out-of-state AND voting rights restoration in Tennessee.” 

CLC, along with Free Hearts, the Tennessee NAACP, and Baker Donelson, are fighting for a better process on behalf of all Tennesseans who have not been able to restore their voting rights through Tennessee's broken system.  

Tennesseans with felony convictions, including out-of-state convictions, who need help with their voting rights can continue to visit RestoreYourVote.org for free and confidential assistance.