Voting Rights

Tennessee Bill Would Restore Felons' Voting Rights

More than 8 percent of the state's population is currently disenfranchised.


A new bill in Tennessee proposes to restore voting rights to hundreds of thousands of convicted felons.

State Sen. Steven Dickerson (R–Nashville) and state Rep. Michael Curcio (R–Dickson) introduced the legislation. If successful, ex-felons would immediately regain voting rights "upon receipt of a pardon or completion of any sentence of incarceration, parole, or probation," with the exception of those convicted of murder, aggravated rape, treason, or voter fraud.

The current law is asinine. There are 320,000 Tennesseans with prior convictions who can't vote—which amounts to more than 8 percent of the population. Those convicted of felony offenses after May 18, 1981 can petition for their right to vote, but "it's such a difficult process that almost nobody actually does it," Dickerson tells The Hill. Everyone convicted between January 15, 1973 and May 17, 1981 can vote without a single precondition, but those convicted before that date for a range of random offenses—including bigamy, buggery, and bribery—are out of luck.

If Tennessee legislators were to approve this bill, they would be following closely on the heels of Florida, where voters restored rights to 1.4 million felons in the November 2018 elections.

Many felony voter restrictions are a remnant of the "black codes," which were laws that targeted African Americans and enshrined voter disenfranchisement into state constitutions shortly after slaves were freed in 1865. Florida, for instance, passed a litany of those laws, creating ambiguous crimes that blacks were often falsely accused of (e.g., "disobedience") and slapping voter bans on those convicted of minor offenses.

To this day, 12 states permanently bar ex-felons from ever voting again. Some only do so for certain crimes, while Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia enforce a lifelong ban. That includes a slew of nonviolent transgressions, including tax evasion and drug dealing, as well as some DUIs. Twenty-two states still block those on parole or probation.

Tennessee's disenfranchisement practices aren't as grounded in racism as those of neighboring states, notes Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. Shortly after the Civil War, closely contested elections in the state incentivized political candidates to court black voters. But the law in its current form is now "one of the strictest in the nation," he says, as it builds in financial impediments to regaining the right to vote. It is also the only state that requires a convicted felon be up to date on child support.

Ex-felons already face roadblocks when seeking employment, housing, and public benefits—all of which have serious implications for financial viability. An offender's bank account is often the last and most prominent barrier to participating in the democratic process, even after they've already paid the price with their sentence. And with such a persistent stigma, many ex-felons offend again. According to a study published in the University of California-Berkeley's La Raza Law Journal, states which permanently bar certain felons from voting have "significantly higher repeat offense rates" than those that don't, as disenfranchisement creates "a permanent criminal underclass of outcasts."