NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Voter rights advocates filed a lawsuit in Tennessee on Wednesday demanding that top election officials allow people to participate in elections if they’ve had their voting rights restored after being convicted of a felony out of state.
The Campaign Legal Center submitted the complaint on behalf of two residents who have both been convicted of a felony outside of Tennessee and have since had their voting rights restored in the state of their conviction.
The complaint names Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins, Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Attorney General Herbert Slatery as defendants in the lawsuit, which was filed in Davidson County Chancery Court.
Since 1981, Tennessee has allowed residents with felony convictions in other states to register to vote as long as their voting rights had been restored in the state of their conviction, according to the complaint.
However, Campaign Legal Center contends this fact was not well known to the public. The group began working late last year with Tennessee’s Elections Division to better clarify a path for people looking to restore their rights.
The complaint alleges the state then “abruptly reversed course” and began requiring residents who had out-of-state felony convictions to meet additional rules. According to the complaint, the Elections Division received a legal opinion from the attorney general’s office that stated residents must not only have their voting rights restored from the state of their conviction, but also must have fully paid all their corresponding legal and restitution fees.
Campaign Legal Center describes the extra requirement surrounding payments as “erroneous under state law.” They argue the state offers other routes to restore voting rights for out-of-state felony convictions.
Currently, Tennessee requires those who have been convicted of a felony in-state to have fully paid off their restitution and legal fees. This requirement has long sparked concern from voter advocates who argue it creates an impossible burden for those who have been convicted.
A spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office directed a request for comment to the attorney general’s office, which said it was reviewing the case.
“Even under the most byzantine voting rights restoration law in the nation, tens of thousands of Tennesseans with past convictions have a pathway back to the ballot box – they just might not know it,” Blair Bowie, legal counsel and Restore Your Vote Manager at Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement. “Here, we illuminated an open window to rights restoration, and the Elections Division and Attorney General quickly and unlawfully slammed it shut.”
According to a 2016 report by The Sentencing Project, an estimated 421,000 Tennesseans are denied the right to vote due to felony convictions — or about 8.2% of the state’s total voting population.
Campaign Legal Center argues Tennessee has “likely the highest rate” of voter disenfranchisement in the United States — particularly among Black voters — after Florida voters approved a ballot initiative in 2018 that sought to restore voting rights post-felony sentence.
“Studies show that restoring the right to vote is an important step in the rehabilitation and reentry process for returning citizens,” the 37-page complaint states.
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