In New Memo, Tennessee Tightens Felony Disenfranchisement Scheme 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Friday, July 21, the Tennessee Coordinator of Elections, Mark Goins (R), announced a change to Tennessee’s felony rights restoration policy in a memo to county elections commissions across the state, adding a new step to an already arduous process. 

The change was made in light of last month’s decision in Falls v. Goins, in which the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld a disenfranchisement scheme that prohibits certain individuals with out-of-state felony convictions from voting in Tennessee. Tennessee has what is known as a pay-to-vote law, which requires individuals to pay all fees, fines or other debts related to their conviction before being eligible for enfranchisement. 

As outlined in the memo, a person convicted of a felony in a Tennessee court, an out-of-state court or a federal court must: 

  1. “Have been pardoned by a Governor, U.S. President, or other appropriate authority of a state, have had full rights of citizenship restored as prescribed by law, and 
  2. Have paid all restitution to the victim or victims of the offense ordered by the court as part of the sentence, if any; and 
  3. Have paid all court costs assessed, if any, unless the court made a finding of indigency; and 
  4. Is current in all child support obligations, if any.”

Previously, individuals with prior in-state felony convictions had to apply to the Board of Probation and Parole for rights restoration. However, those with out-of-state felony convictions had additional requirements, specifically, they could not be re-enfranchised in Tennessee unless they “provide[d] evidence” demonstrating that they did not owe court fees, restitution or child support. 

As announced in the memo, all individuals must now first receive a pardon, likely by the governor, or have a court restore their full rights of citizenship. This is followed by the pay-to-vote scheme. 

After these requirements are satisfied, the state also requires individuals to complete an updated Certificate of Restoration of Voting Rights, which is attached in the memo. The overhaul further complicates a process that advocates say is already strenuous and confusing enough. 

Blair Bowie, an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center who has been involved in multiple lawsuits concerning Tennessee’s felony disenfranchisement laws including the Falls case, said in response to Friday’s memo: “The new process is more difficult than the procedures that existed before the legislature created certificates of restoration in 2006 and it puts Tennessee in the bottom of the barrel on rights restoration as one of the only states with a fully discretionary process, alongside Mississippi and Virginia.”

Currently, more than 9% of the voting-age population in Tennessee cannot vote due to a felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project. In addition, Tennessee is one of several states where more than one in 10 Black individuals are disenfranchised.

To further contextualize this statistic, as noted in the Falls complaint, “Tennessee now likely has the highest rate of disenfranchisement in the United States. Of the estimated disenfranchised population in Tennessee, nearly 174,000 are Black, accounting for more than 21% of the Black voting age population – likely the highest rate of Black disenfranchisement in the United States.”

Read the memo here. 
Learn more about Falls v. Goins here.