The Tennessee legislature today approved a bill to simplify the
process for people who have completed a felony sentence to regain their voting rights.
The move was hailed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee (ACLU-TN) and the national Right to Vote Campaign, who said it "streamlined the nation's most confusing system."
"Current felony disenfranchisement laws are so confusing that men and women who qualify to vote probably do not know it," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. "Passage of this bill is an important first step in streamlining the process and ensuring that a citizen not only understands the process but can have his or her most sacred democratic right restored."
An amendment prevents the restoration of voting rights if individuals are not current on child support payments.
Ms. Weinberg said, "This last minute provision unfairly penalizes poor mothers and fathers who may never have enough money to buy back their franchise."
Laws that bar people with felony convictions from voting in Tennessee vary according to when a person was convicted and for what type of crime. For convictions after 1981, the right to vote is lost permanently for any felony offense. People convicted of a felony between 1973 and 1981 lose their voting rights while serving their sentence, but regain their voting rights after its completion. People convicted before 1973 lose their voting rights if they are convicted of one of eight categories of crimes. Tennessee's procedure for restoring voting rights also varies depending on a person's conviction date, and can require a citizen to hire a lawyer and go to court to regain the franchise.
HB1722/SB1678, sponsored by Rep. Larry Turner and Sen. Steve Cohen, creates a single restoration process. Eligible people who have completed their felony sentences, including probation and parole, and paid their restitution, may apply for and receive a "certificate of voting rights restoration" through the criminal justice system. A person must then present this certificate to election officials who verify it before registering the applicant to vote.
Persons convicted of murder, rape, and certain other specified crimes are ineligible to have their voting rights restored.