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Advocates challenge Tenn. policy on restoring voting rights

Tennessee State Capitol (WZTV){br}
Tennessee State Capitol (WZTV)
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Voter rights advocates on Wednesday once again challenged Tennessee’s policy on how people convicted of felonies out of state can participate in elections.

The Tennessee Supreme Court listened to the arguments stemming from the 2020 lawsuit, where the Campaign Legal Center is challenging the requirements the state places on those who have had their voting rights restored after being convicted of a felony out of state. Lower courts have previously sided with the state’s election office, but attorneys are hoping for a different outcome with Tennessee’s highest court.

The campaign watchdog nonprofit is representing Ernest Falls, who was convicted of a felony in 1986 in Virginia but was granted clemency in 2020 — which restored his rights of citizenship, including the right to run for office, the right to serve on a jury and the right to vote. Shortly after, Falls attempted to register to vote in Tennessee — where he has lived for several years — but was denied.

According to the lawsuit, Falls’ denial came after the state “abruptly reversed course” in 2020 and began requiring residents who had out-of-state felony convictions to meet additional rules.

The complaint alleges that state’s 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 prove that they have fully paid all their corresponding legal and restitution fees.

Assistant Attorney General Alex Rieger argued Wednesday that such requirements are allowed due to previous court precedent.

However, Falls’ attorney William Harbison countered that someone who has “full rights of citizenship” shouldn’t be subjected to getting their rights restored.

“We brought this case to ask this court to rule that he does have the right to vote,” he said.

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.

The lawsuit initially had another plaintiff who was also blocked from registering to vote stemming from his out-of-state felony conviction, but that person has since paid his outstanding court costs and has been deemed now eligible to vote under the “current interpretation of Tennessee law.”

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.

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Justices on the state Supreme Court listened to the arguments Wednesday but did not disclose when they might make a decision.

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