Democratic Lawmakers Ask Justice Department To Probe Tennessee's Voting Rights Restoration Changes

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A group of Democratic Tennessee lawmakers is asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate how the state has further restricted the process for people with felony records to get their voting rights back.

According to the letter, 22 Democratic lawmakers argue Tennessee's elections office has stepped beyond what state law allows in requiring that people get their full citizenship rights restored or secure a pardon in addition to the restoration processes that have been in place.

“While Tennessee law permits restoration of voting rights through a straight-forward administrative procedure, the Tennessee Secretary of State has imposed an illegal, de facto procedure that injects obstacles, delay and extralegal standards that prevent virtually any eligible applicants from exercising the voting rights restored by law,” the letter states.

Democratic Rep. Caleb Hemmer and Sens. Charlane Oliver and Jeff Yarbro delivered the letter to Justice Department Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke on Thursday.

Secretary of State Tre Hargett on Thursday downplayed the criticism outlined in the letter.

“Tennesseans should not be surprised that some want to weaponize the Department of Justice against the state ranked number one in election integrity," Hargett said in a statement.

The policy changes began last summer, but the issue once again sparked outcries from voting rights advocates after elections officials in January made another legal interpretation that restoration of gun rights is part of the requirement.

Because of those changes, coupled with existing state and federal laws for certain offenses that permanently ban someone from getting their gun rights back, critics argue the state's new policy permanently disenfranchises tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of people from getting another chance to vote.

The change, instituted by elections officials in July, has since halted almost all voting rights restorations: Just nine people have been approved using the new process.

The Secretary of State's office did not respond to how many people have been denied their rights in that same time period.

And in the nearly seven months before it was implemented, about 200 people were approved and 120 denied, according to data from the secretary of state’s office. State election officials have said a Tennessee Supreme Court case on a separate but related voting rights restoration question made the changes necessary.

But the Democratic lawmakers say the state has drastically erred in its interpretation.

“We believe these actions likewise may constitute violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the New Voter Registration Act of 1993 and potentially the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871,” the letter says.

So far, Republicans inside the GOP-dominated Legislature have shown no interest in addressing voter restoration rights during this year's legislative session. Senate Speaker Randy McNally told The Associated Press earlier this year he would prefer even more restrictions, while House Majority Leader William Lamberth told reporters people should not have violated the law if they wanted to continue casting ballots.

Separately, Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, who has touted his support for criminal justice reform, has said changes to the voting rights restoration process are “worth a conversation" but so far has not actually done so by introducing legislation or issuing an executive order to restore voting rights.

The lack of action has exasperated Democrats, who argue that the state's current policy is similar to Jim Crow-era laws that were put in place with the intent of stopping Black people from participating in elections.

News that the state was requiring convicted felons get their gun rights restored before they could become eligible to vote was only made public by Tennessee's election office when pressed by The Associated Press. The announcement quickly sparked outrage at tying firearm access to voting.

However, State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins has maintained that someone’s full citizenship rights must be restored before they can regain the right to vote, saying that , “Under the Tennessee Constitution, the right to bear arms is a right of citizenship.”

In Tennessee, all felony drug crimes and felonies involving violence specifically strip away someone’s gun rights, and high-level action such as a pardon by a governor is needed to restore their voting rights.

Separately, a longstanding, federal lawsuit over Tennessee’s voting rights restoration processes was scheduled to go to trial last November. The election office’s policy change this summer spurred delays in court, and the case is now slated for a trial in December, after the 2024 elections conclude.