Groups seek to restore voting rights to Tennesseans with felony convictions

Fewer than 500 Tennesseans have had their voting rights restored in the past 25 years, even though 320,000 are eligible.

Lawmakers, Matthew Charles (a formerly incarcerated activist and recent guest of President Trump at the State of the Union), advocates, and re-entry experts, gathered at the capitol complex in Nashville to discuss new bills (SB 589 / HB 547) that will streamline the voting rights restoration process for Tennesseans with felony convictions who have completed their sentences.

The roundtable featured the bill sponsors, state Sen. Steven Dickerson (R-20) and state Rep. Michael Curcio (R-69), alongside Charles, as well as a group of prominent advocates and prisoner re-entry experts.

The proposed legislation will tear down government barriers to individual freedom by streamlining the process of restoration of voting rights for people with felony convictions after they have completed their sentences. Under current law, hundreds of thousands of citizens in Tennessee (people who have successfully completed their sentences and are living, working, and paying taxes in their communities) are stymied from voting because of government interference. Overall, more than eight percent of the state’s total voting age population is disenfranchised by the onerous restoration process despite having already served their time and successfully completed their parole and/or probation.

“The current process to reinstate voting rights is incredibly onerous and effectively results in the permanent disenfranchisement of people convicted of felony offenses,” said Sen. Dickerson. “It’s difficult for people with convictions, and it’s doubly burdensome for our Tennessee officials, who have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to get this paperwork processed.”

“Our proposed legislation is designed to limit bureaucratic interference in the voting rights restoration process, because we need to get government out of people’s lives,” said Rep. Curcio. “The same goes for people with felony convictions. Our laws should seek to severely limit government barriers to successful reentry after incarceration, and ensure that people with former convictions have the freedom to re-engage with the community and begin to improve their lives.”

Tennessee is one of only 12 states that currently prohibits people with felony convictions getting their rights restored or has a process in place that is so burdensome and complex that it effectively serves as a prohibition. According to a new report by Think Tennessee in partnership with Americans for Prosperity and Project Return, over the last 25 years, on average, fewer than 500 people in Tennessee each year have their rights restored despite there being over 320,000 eligible Tennesseans who have completed their sentences.

“A criminal justice system should remove barriers to opportunity, make our communities stronger and safer, and give real second chances for citizens to become productive members of society. True second chances come with restored dignity and rights,” said Tori Venable, state director at Americans for Prosperity – Tennessee. “These bills are a great step forward for reforming our criminal justice system and we look forward to working with lawmakers to improve the restoration process for Tennesseans who have paid their debt to society.”

“The denial of voting rights post-incarceration does nothing to preserve public safety or improve the health and well-being of our community. Instead, it serves to exclude the tax-paying citizens among us who have paid their debt to society, and who want nothing more than to leave prison behind,” said Bettie Kirkland, executive director of Project Return. “Successful reentry after incarceration is in everyone’s best interest, and being a contributing, participatory member of one’s community, exercising a vested interest in that community, by having and exercising the right to vote, is an important element of reentry success.”

Fifty years after the civil right movement and our nation’s fight to guarantee all citizens the right to vote, the American people, politicians, and the media are waking up to the fact that we still broadly deny voting rights to a large segment of American citizens.

“Tennessee’s current disenfranchisement laws are among the most complicated and onerous in the country. Three-quarters of disenfranchised Tennesseans have completed their sentences, yet are still unable to vote due to Tennessee’s burdensome restoration process and the nearly insurmountable financial hurdles placed in their way,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU in Tennessee. “Tying the right to vote to income is unfair. We look forward to Tennessee following Florida’s lead and ensuring that individuals trying to make a fresh start after a felony conviction can vote again.”

“Right now, more than 20% of Tennessee’s Black citizens of voting age are disenfranchised by this law despite having already served their time and successfully completed their parole and/or probation,” said Tequila Johnson, vice president of The Equity Alliance. “In Tennessee, the end to our state’s felony disenfranchisement laws puts us on the right side of history, putting us alongside 24 states that recently have made progress and eased the process by which rights are restored to people with prior convictions.”

In November, the people of Florida voted overwhelmingly to restore the rights of 700,00 formerly incarcerated people after nearly a century of disenfranchisement. With focused national attention in the wake of that hard-won victory, the fight to restore the voting rights to the remaining four million disenfranchised citizens has been gaining new ground.

“Americans believe in second chances. Christians believe in second chances. And as President’s Trump guest at the State of the Union, I know he believes in second chances. But an integral part of our system of giving second chances to formerly incarcerated people, restoring a person’s right to vote, remains broken,” said Charles. “People like me who have paid their debt to society should be able to fully regain their liberty when they re-enter their communities, and the full exercise of voting rights is a core component of individual liberty within a democracy.”