VICTORY: Federal Court Affirms That Tennessee Election Officials Cannot Deny Voter Registration to Eligible Tennesseans with Past Felony Convictions, Must Inform Potential Voters of Eligibility

Tennessee voters achieved a victory when a federal judge affirmed that Tennessee election officials cannot deny voter registration to eligible Tennesseans who have past felony convictions and that they must inform potential voters of eligibility requirements for voting after a felony. Campaign Legal Center represented voters in this lawsuit against Tennessee’s unequal, inaccessible voting rights restoration process.


“The Tennessee NAACP is pleased with the federal judge’s ruling,” said Gloria Sweet-Love, president of the Tennessee NAACP. “It takes us a step closer to removing barriers for formerly incarcerated Tennesseans who are seeking free and fair access to the ballot box. We must do all that we can — and we urge the courts and the state Election Division to do all they can — to guard against democratic backsliding, and ensure that all Tennesseans have voter protections.”


"This court decision marks a significant victory in our ongoing battle for voting rights restoration for those silenced by felony disenfranchisement, said Keeda Haynes, senior legal counsel at Free Hearts. "While we celebrate today, we remain vigilant in our fight against the evolving challenges and barriers to voting that have emerged since we first filed this lawsuit. Our commitment to 'free the vote' remains unwavering until every disenfranchised voice is heard."


“For too long, Tennessee has maintained policies designed to confuse, mislead, burden and shut out fully eligible voters who never lost the right to vote at all,” said Blair Bowie, director of Campaign Legal Center’s Restore Your Vote program. ”Yesterday’s ruling is a win for Tennesseans who have been wrongly denied a voice in their government for too long — and a step in the right direction.”


“This ruling is an important development towards the goal of ensuring that everyone who is entitled to vote gets to vote,” said Charles Grant, shareholder at Baker Donelson.    


Tennessee has the second-largest disenfranchised population in the country, more than 470,000, second only to Florida, and disenfranchises over 20% of its Black citizens, the highest rate of Black disenfranchisement in the country.


Yet not every Tennessean with a prior felony conviction has lost the right to vote. For example, between 1973 and 1981, Tennessee did not have felony disenfranchisement, so felony convictions from that period did not take away the right to vote. Moreover, people whose felonies were reversed or expunged have the right to vote. And, even with the most complicated and error-ridden voting rights restoration process in the country, thousands of Tennesseans have successfully restored their right to vote.


However, for years, Tennessee’s voter registration form plainly misinformed potential voters on the law, incorrectly stating that a person with a felony conviction could not register if they had not received a pardon or restored their voting rights — even if they received a felony in the "grace period" mentioned above or had their conviction reversed or expunged. 


Additionally, the policy of elections officials was to deny voter registration forms from anyone with a felony, even if that person indicated that they had never lost the right to vote. 


In 2019, the Tennessee NAACP and Campaign Legal Center informed the Elections Division that these policies violated the National Voter Registration Act and in 2020, the groups, as well as Free Hearts and Baker Donelson, brought a lawsuit.


In August 2023, after being on notice of these violations for years, the Elections Division made a last minute attempt to come into compliance with the law and then asked the Court to dismiss the lawsuit as moot. However, on April 18, 2024, the District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee ruled that the Election Division’s policies violate the National Voter Registration Act. 


Additionally, the Court expressed skepticism that the state would not go back on its recent policy changes if the case were dismissed, writing that “[t]he timing of Election Division’s policy change also raises suspicions that its cessation is not genuine.” 


The Court’s ruling does not change the reality that, currently, Tennessee Election Officials have unlawfully created a “two-step” voting rights restoration process that makes it just one of three states that effectively permanently disenfranchises citizens with prior felony convictions. This process resulted from a major, bad faith misinterpretation of the law by the Elections Division last summer requiring all Tennesseans to restore their “full citizenship rights” before they can restore their voting rights — in addition to filling out the Certificate of Restoration (COR) form. 


Then, earlier this year, TN Elections Division confirmed that it wrongly interprets Tennessee law to conclude that, if a person who was convicted of a felony doesn’t or cannot get their full gun rights restored, they won’t ever be able to restore full citizenship and, thus, their voting rights in Tennessee — a policy that threatens to preclude Tennesseans with many types of felonies, including anyone with a felony drug conviction, from ever restoring their right to vote.


Learn more about Tennessee’s felony disenfranchisement regime.


Learn more about Campaign Legal Center’s lawsuit against TN’s unequal, inaccessible voting rights restoration process, TN NAACP v. Lee.