Tennessee Supreme Court Denies Voting Rights Restoration for Once-Eligible Tennesseans

Nashville, TN — Campaign Legal Center (CLC) is deeply disappointed in the decision made yesterday by the Tennessee Supreme Court to overturn more than 40 years of settled state law and deprive certain citizens with prior felony convictions of their fundamental freedom to vote.  

This decision stems from the case of Ernest Falls, who has been denied the right to vote for failure to prove that he does not owe court costs related to a 1986 felony conviction in Virginia. In 2020, Mr. Falls was granted clemency by the Governor of Virginia and was therefore no longer disqualified from voting under Tennessee law, but the Tennessee Elections Division refused to allow Mr. Falls to register to vote. 

Under Tennessee law, a person convicted of a felony in another state is disqualified from voting unless their civil rights have been restored in the state where they were convicted or under Tennessee’s rights restoration process. But in 2020, the Tennessee Elections Division reversed its prior interpretation of the law, deciding instead that all individuals convicted of felonies must prove they meet the criteria of Tennessee’s administrative voting rights restoration, also known as Certificates of Restoration, which includes payment of court costs and restitution—even if they are no longer disqualified by reason of having their full civil rights restored in the state in which they were convicted. 

“The Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision flies in the face of more than 40 years of existing law and of common sense,” said Blair Bowie, Director of CLC’s Restore Your Vote program. “Elections officials can’t just wake up one day and decide to unilaterally change the law to disenfranchise eligible voters, and it is deeply disappointing that the State Supreme Court went along with it.” 

Justice Sharon G. Lee filed a dissenting opinion noting that, “Mr. Falls was not prohibited from voting because his right to vote had been restored by the grant of clemency. The requirement regarding restitution, court costs, and child support [for Certificates of Restoration] does not apply to Mr. Falls because he had no need to have his voting rights restored... To put it simply, Mr. Falls has no need to double-restore his right of suffrage.” 

This decision makes it even more important that Tennesseans with past felony convictions from other states have meaningful access to the state's Certificate of Restoration process. Unfortunately, under this system, many Tennesseans' ability to regain their suffrage is entirely dependent on the willingness of out-of-state officials to fill out Tennessee paperwork—which they frequently refuse to do.  

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. 

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