Tennessee has one of the highest rates of disenfranchisement in the United States, thank to more than 9% of the voting age population's felony convictions, and that problem just got worse. The state's division of elections has ruled that someone with a felony must first successfully receive a pardon from the governor or have a court restore their full rights of citizenship, then they must complete a certificate of restoration process to get their rights restored, the Guardian reports. Previously, someone with a felony who wished to vote again had to pay all debts and then get government officials to sign off on the certificate of restoration affirming their eligibility to vote. The process was already burdensome, especially compared to the automatic restoration that occurs in a majority of states upon release from prison or after a period of probation or parole.
Mark Goins, the state’s director of elections, said in a Friday memo the change was necessary because of a recent state supreme court decision in a case called Falls v Goins. In that decision, the state supreme court ruled that a man who had been convicted of a felony decades ago in Virginia and had his voting rights restored there still had to go through Tennessee’s process for restoring voting rights. The court read two different portions of Tennessee law, one from the 1980s and one from 2006, to say that there was a two step process for those with out of state convictions to become eligible to vote: first they had to receive clemency from the state where the conviction was, and then they had to go through the Tennessee process. “The new process is more difficult than the procedures that existed before the legislature created certificates of restoration in 2006 and it puts Tennessee in the bottom of the barrel on rights restoration as one of the only states with a fully discretionary process, alongside Mississippi and Virginia," said Blair Bowie, an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center who has been involved in a number of lawsuits challenging Tennessee’s rules around felon disenfranchisement. The state's disenfranchisement rate, estimated in 2022 at 9% by the Sentencing Project, falls especially heavy on Black people. More than 21% of Black adults in Tennessee are disenfranchised.