Federal Court Strikes Down Part of Tennessee’s Felony Disenfranchisement Scheme

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Yesterday, a federal judge ruled that Tennessee election officials cannot wrongly deny Tennesseans with past felony convictions of their right to vote by improperly rejecting eligible voters’ registration forms. In addition, the court held that the state’s registration form must properly inform potential voters with past felony convictions of their eligibility. 

The Campaign Legal Center called this decision “a big step in the right direction” with the rest of the lawsuit’s claims set to go to trial in the coming months. 

Specifically, the court found that the state’s current practice of denying individuals the right to by rejecting voters’ registration forms when applicants indicate they have a prior felony conviction and requiring those applicants provide documentary proof of their eligibility to vote violates the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The court also found that Tennessee’s current voter registration form does not comply with the NVRA’s requirements for informing voters if their rights have been restored. 

Tennessee has an extraordinarily high disenfranchisement rate that disproportionately impacts Black Tennesseans. According to the lawsuit, “Black people make up 16% of the state’s total voting-age population, but account for 39% of its disenfranchised population. Of the state’s 451,000 disenfranchised citizens, nearly 175,000 are Black, accounting for more than 21% of the Black voting-age population—one of the highest rates of Black disenfranchisement in the United States.” 

The lawsuit alleges that Tennessee has a particularly strenuous process for restoring voting rights to those with prior felony convictions. The plaintiffs also argue that the implementation of Tennessee’s rights restoration process creates “an unequal, scattershot system across Tennessee’s ninety-five counties, causing disparate results for similarly situated individuals,” and at least one county, Rutherford County, charges a fee for the process. The plaintiffs argue that this fee constitutes a poll tax and violates the 24th Amendment. 

Read the opinion here.

Learn more about the case here.