Restoring Voting Rights: A Key Issue for Tennessee Campaigns
Meet The Candidates | June 09, 2024
According to the LWVTN's research, Tennessee's laws for voter restoration are among the most restrictive and complex in the nation.

Written by: JR Robinson

As the 2024 election cycle approaches, Tennessee campaigns and candidates have a unique opportunity to address a critical issue that strikes at the heart of our democracy – the restoration of voting rights for individuals with felony convictions. With over 420,000 Tennesseans barred from voting due to past felony convictions, representing one in twelve adults in the state, the need for awareness and action on this issue has never been more pressing.

Fortunately, organizations like the League of Women Voters of Tennessee (LWVTN) and ThinkTennessee have been at the forefront of this fight, conducting extensive research and providing invaluable resources to educate the public and policymakers on the complexities of voter restoration in the state.

The Challenges of Voter Restoration in Tennessee

According to the LWVTN's research, Tennessee's laws for voter restoration are among the most restrictive and complex in the nation. As of 2016, less than 4% of eligible individuals had successfully had their voting rights restored, a staggering statistic that highlights the significant barriers in place. [5]

One of the primary challenges is the lack of awareness and understanding surrounding the voter restoration process. Many Tennesseans who have been disenfranchised due to a felony conviction are unaware that they can regain their voting rights, or are unsure of the options available to them.

Additionally, the process itself is often described as "labyrinthine," with multiple statutes and regulations governing the restoration of voting rights, each with its own set of requirements and procedures. This complexity has led to widespread confusion and inconsistencies in how the process is implemented across different counties and jurisdictions.

Recent Developments and Setbacks

In a concerning development, recent guidance from Tennessee's Elections Coordinator Mark Goins has raised the bar even higher for individuals seeking to restore their voting rights. According to a report by the Tennessee Lookout, Goins' guidance "effectively closes the door to voting rights restoration for over 470,000 Tennesseans." [4]

The guidance requires individuals convicted of felonies to comply with two state laws rather than one or the other. Specifically, they must now obtain a pardon or have all citizenship rights restored, and show that they have paid all restitution and court costs from their conviction, as well as being current on child support payments. [4]

This new guidance has drawn sharp criticism from voting rights advocates and legal organizations, who argue that it flies in the face of existing law and disenfranchises eligible voters. As Blair Bowie, Director of the Campaign Legal Center's Restore Your Vote program, stated, "Elections officials can't just wake up one day and decide to unilaterally change the law to disenfranchise eligible voters, and it is deeply disappointing that the State Supreme Court went along with it." [4]

The Role of Campaigns and Candidates

In the face of these challenges and setbacks, Tennessee campaigns and candidates have a crucial role to play in raising awareness about voter restoration and advocating for a more accessible and equitable process.

One of the key steps campaigns can take is to educate their supporters and constituents about the existing laws and regulations surrounding voter restoration. By sharing resources like ThinkTennessee's brief on restoring voting rights and the LWVTN's research findings, campaigns can help demystify the process and empower individuals to take action.

Additionally, campaigns can leverage their platforms and reach to amplify the voices of those directly impacted by disenfranchisement. By highlighting personal stories and experiences, campaigns can humanize this issue and foster a deeper understanding of the barriers faced by individuals seeking to regain their voting rights.

Furthermore, candidates themselves can take a strong stance on voter restoration, making it a central part of their policy platforms and advocating for legislative reforms that would simplify and streamline the process. By committing to this issue, candidates can demonstrate their dedication to upholding the principles of democracy and ensuring that every eligible citizen has a voice in the electoral process.

Ongoing Efforts and Resources

Despite the challenges and setbacks, organizations like the LWVTN and ThinkTennessee remain committed to the fight for voter restoration in Tennessee. The LWVTN has hosted numerous webinars and events aimed at educating the public and providing resources for individuals seeking to restore their voting rights.

One such webinar, titled "Voter Restoration in Tennessee: New Road Blocks," explored the impact of the recent regulations and highlighted strategies for overcoming these obstacles. The event featured experts from the LWVTN, Campaign Legal Center, UT Legal Clinic, Free Hearts, and community leaders who have successfully navigated the voter restoration process. [5]

Additionally, the LWVTN has partnered with local officials and organizations to facilitate the voter restoration process at the county level. For example, in Davidson County, the organization has worked closely with the Criminal Court Clerk and Vice-Mayor to assist individuals in regaining their voting rights.

By leveraging these resources and collaborating with organizations on the front lines of this fight, Tennessee campaigns and candidates can play a vital role in raising awareness, advocating for change, and ultimately ensuring that every eligible citizen has the opportunity to participate in the democratic process.

The Path Forward

As the 2024 elections approach, the issue of voter restoration in Tennessee must be a priority for campaigns and candidates across the political spectrum. By embracing this cause and committing to meaningful action, they can demonstrate their dedication to upholding the fundamental principles of democracy and ensuring that every voice is heard.

Through education, advocacy, and collaboration with organizations like the LWVTN and ThinkTennessee, campaigns and candidates can help break down the barriers that have disenfranchised thousands of Tennesseans and pave the way for a more inclusive and representative electoral process.

Ultimately, the fight for voter restoration is not just about numbers or statistics – it's about upholding the inherent dignity and rights of every citizen, regardless of their past mistakes or circumstances. By championing this cause, Tennessee campaigns and candidates can play a vital role in strengthening our democracy and ensuring that the promise of equal representation remains a reality for all.


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