Tennessee Democrats Ask DOJ To Investigate the State’s Restrictive Voting Policies

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Democratic lawmakers in Tennessee are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate a series of recent policies put in place that disenfranchise voters. 

In letter sent on Thursday, 22 Democratic members of the Tennessee House and Senate signed their name asking Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, to open an investigation into policy changes put in place by Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett (R) and State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins (R) that target voters with felony convictions. 

In Tennessee, the rule states that in order for anyone convicted of a felony to get their right to vote back they must first get their 2nd Amendment rights restored before they can cast a ballot. Hargett and Goins mandated the rule in January after months of internal debate among Tennessee election officials, stemming from a state Supreme Court ruling, according to the Associated Press. 

“We urge the Department of Justice to immediately open an investigation into the decisions made here in Tennessee and to bring appropriate legal action to vindicate the rights of Tennesseans, who have had their right to vote restored by law but have had their exercise of that right illegally obstructed,” the letter reads.

In June of 2023, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued a ruling to uphold a state rule that bans certain people with out-of-state felony convictions from voting, one of many voting laws that give the state one of the highest rates of disenfranchisement in the country, according to the complaint that led to the ruling. Yesterday’s letter from state lawmakers cites data from the Sentencing Project estimating that more than 470,000 citizens are denied the right to vote in Tennessee because of felony convictions. 

The letter explains that the Tennessee Supreme Court’s ruling created a “backdoor mechanism” to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters because of a state law that permanently bars some people with felony convictions from ever owning a gun again. The authors argue that Tennessee is violating the state constitution by creating the impossible requirement that those same people convicted of felonies must first restore their right to own a firearm in order to vote, according to the Tennessee Senate Democrats’ press release on the letter. 

“We are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene on behalf of these citizens and curb the overreach of Tennessee’s state government,” said Sen. Charlane Oliver (D), one of the signees. “This is about restoring dignity, fairness, and the fundamental right to vote for those seeking redemption and reintegration into our democratic society.”

Read the full letter here.

Learn more about the court ruling that opened the door for felony disenfranchisement here.