73% of Tennessee voters support restoring voting eligibility to those with past felony convictions

An overwhelming number of Tennessee voters support restoring voting rights to those with past felony convictions. (photo courtesy of <Photka/Dreamstime.com>)

A nonpartisan statewide poll shows that the vast majority of Tennessee voters, 73%, support a bill to restore voting eligibility for Tennesseans with past felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including probation or parole. The results also find strong support among a significant majority (62%) of Republican voters.

Additional findings include: 63% of voters say they are more likely to vote for their state representative in the upcoming elections if they support legislation to restore voting eligibility to people with past convictions.

A majority of voters (53%) say it should be a priority for the legislature to pass this bill into law during the 2020 legislative session.

Sixty-four percent of voters surveyed specifically support restoring voting eligibility for someone who has successfully completed all the requirements of their sentence, except that they are still on probation only because they cannot afford to pay their court fines, probation fees, or other financial obligations in full.

“This poll makes it clear that the people of Tennessee don’t support unfairly penalizing indigent people who can’t afford to pay outstanding financial obligations after they complete their sentences,” said Keith Caldwell Nashville president of the NAACP. “We can’t place the burden of restoring voting rights on people who are working to rebuild their lives—that is the responsibility of the state of Tennessee.”

The 600 person statewide poll was conducted by Anchor Research and Baker Group Strategies, and fielded by a bipartisan effort working to advance election and criminal justice reforms.

Tennessee is one of only eight states (Ala., Ariz., Iowa, Ky., Miss., Tenn., Va., Wy.) that currently prohibits most people with past felony convictions from regaining the eligibility to vote or has a process in place that is so burdensome or complex that it can effectively serve as a prohibition on eligibility.

“The overwhelming bi-partisan support in this poll clearly demonstrates that Tennesseans support eliminating the current burdensome restoration process, they want the legislature to prioritize getting this done in the 2020 legislative session, and they will look favorably upon elected officials who support voting restoration come election time,” said Colin Weaver, director of State Affairs for Secure Democracy. “You can’t ask for a clearer signal that voters want real change and they want it now.”

“Voting is at the very core of what it means to be a part of the community and a valued member of our country’s democracy,” said Bettie Kirkland, executive director of Project Return. “The denial of voting does not preserve public safety or improve community health. Instead, it isolates and dehumanizes people. Restoring voting eligibility is an important part of successful re-entry after incarceration.”

According to Tequila Johnson, president of the Equity Alliance, which is a nonpartisan, non-profit organization that seeks to equip citizens with tools and strategies to engage in the civic process: one in five of Tennessee’s Black citizens of voting age are disenfranchised by “our complex, bureaucratic process around voting restoration. Right now, there is an incredible amount of grassroots momentum on this issue. Public pressure is mounting for our elected officials to make a change to these outdated laws.”

“Voting is both a fundamental right and the most powerful way to use one’s voice in our democracy. When it comes to voting restoration, it’s becoming more and more clear that Tennessee voters believe that our state’s voting policies unfairly and unjustly punish people who have completed their sentences,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU in Tennessee. “In fact, restoring the right to vote helps people who have completed their sentences reintegrate back into society. Tennessee voters from across the political spectrum have made it abundantly clear that they see the value of voting restoration.”