Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Out-of-State Felony Disenfranchisement Law

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Thursday, June 29, in a 3-1 decision, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld a disenfranchisement scheme that prohibits certain individuals with out-of-state felony convictions from voting in Tennessee. 

Specifically, the state Supreme Court held that even if an individual with an out-of-state felony conviction had their rights restored by the state in which they originally committed a felony — but only regained their rights after they moved to Tennessee — they cannot be re-enfranchised in Tennessee unless they “provide evidence” demonstrating that they do not owe court fees, restitution or child support. This scheme, known as a pay-to-vote law, explicitly requires the repayment of court fines and fees before re-enfranchisement. 

Importantly, in this case, there was no evidence that the plaintiff even owed fees, restitution or child support. This critical fact was acknowledged by the Tennessee Supreme Court in a footnote, but was otherwise disregarded.

This decision stems from a case in which two Tennessee residents challenged their inability to register to vote in Tennessee due to prior felony convictions in North Carolina and Virginia. The appeal before the Tennessee Supreme Court only involved one plaintiff, Ernest Falls. 

In Tennessee, there are three ways that individuals with out-of-state felony convictions may restore their voting rights, one of which includes being pardoned or having one’s rights restored by the governor of the state in which the felony was committed. Falls, who was granted clemency in 2020 by the governor of Virginia, fits into this category. 

Initially, a trial court concluded that the disenfranchisement of the plaintiffs did not violate state law. Falls appealed the trial court’s ruling to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s decision despite acknowledging that “[t]here is no evidence in the record that Mr. Falls actually owes any fees, restitution, or child support,” only that “he has not provided evidence that he does not owe any of these financial obligations.”

Despite this, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled against Falls and upheld Tennessee’s out-of-state felony disenfranchisement scheme stating that “[u]ltimately, we agree with the position of the State Officials and the Court of Appeals and affirm the intermediate appellate court’s decision.” 

The court held that “Mr. Falls’ citizenship and voting rights were not restored in Virginia until after he had established residency in Tennessee. We express no opinion as to the outcome of a hypothetical case in which a person convicted of an infamous crime in another state regains citizenship and voting rights in that person’s state of prosecution before establishing residency and attempting to register to vote in Tennessee.”

According to the complaint, as of 2020, Tennessee “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.” 

Today, the state’s highest court held that Tennessee’s practice of disenfranchising Tennessians with out-of-state convictions who have not provided evidence that they have “paid outstanding court costs, restitution, and/or child support” is constitutional and ruled that Falls’ voting rights should not be restored in Tennessee. 

In her dissent, Justice Sharon G. Lee wrote: “It makes no sense to deprive a Tennessee citizen of the right to vote because he moved to Tennessee before having that right restored. And it makes no sense for Tennessee to become a debt collector for Virginia by depriving a Tennessee resident of the right to vote because he provided no evidence to show that he did not owe court costs or restitution in Virginia from a case over forty years old.” 

“The right to vote ‘is a fundamental matter in a free and democratic society.’ [] Mr. Falls’ voting rights were fully restored; he should not be denied his constitutional right to vote,” Lee concluded. 

Read the majority opinion here. 

Read the dissenting opinion here.

Learn more about the case here.