NASHVILLE – Tennesseans seeking to regain their voting rights previously had multiple options for restoration, but in 2023 the state updated its procedure to combine the previous options into one multi-step requirement. As a result, the voting rights restoration process in Tennessee is now longer, more confusing, and even more redundant than before finds a new policy brief released today by nonpartisan think tank ThinkTennessee.
“Tennessee is the only state in the nation that requires people seeking to restore their voting rights to demonstrate their eligibility multiple times,” said Erin Hafkenschiel, president of ThinkTennessee. “There is a balance between ensuring that every person who is eligible can vote and maintaining election integrity, and our peer-state analysis identifies a number of opportunities that would streamline our process for the benefit of all Tennesseans.”
The restoration process has been modified multiple times. Prior to 2006, Tennesseans could receive a pardon or petition a court to have their full citizenship rights –the right to vote, own a gun, run for office, and serve on a jury – restored. Then in 2006, changes to the process were made that allowed Tennesseans to have just their voting rights restored through a Certificate of Voting Rights Restoration (COR), rather than seeking restoration of their full citizenship rights. Most recently in July 2023, however, the state coordinator of elections issued a directive that now requires Tennesseans seeking to restore their voting rights must complete both a pardon or petition and a COR.
Even before the most recent change, restoring voting rights in Tennessee was complicated and confusing. Issues with the process include ambiguity around which officials are responsible for providing required information, inaccessible data on the payment status of legal financial obligations (LFOs), and challenges coordinating with other states’ officials for Tennesseans with out-of-state convictions.
The voting rights restoration process in other states is simpler and more efficient. 26 states, including Louisiana, return voting rights eligibility upon sentence completion (LFOs may still be owed, but they are not due before voting rights are returned). Many others, like Kentucky, Georgia, and Arizona, have recently moved to limit LFO requirements. Tennessee is one of just eight states that requires additional steps after sentence completion to demonstrate eligibility, though most others explain their application processes more clearly.
ThinkTennessee’s review of peer states’ systems provides examples for how Tennessee’s voting rights process could be streamlined and simplified.
- Remove the two-step process for restoring voting rights. All other states either restore voting rights upon sentence completion or require demonstrating eligibility through a pardon or a certificate (not both).
- Streamline and clarify the COR process. For instance, Tennessee could designate an agency to issue CORs to applicants, create an application process to request a COR, allow one COR per person rather than per conviction, clearly define which court costs impact voting eligibility, and establish a statewide, unified system for tracking LFOs.
- Create a timeline and appeals process. Timelines would ensure processing does not prevent an eligible voter from participating in an election. An appeals process would provide much needed transparency and accountability to the decision-making process.
- Reduce or remove LFOs from the voting rights restoration process. Tennesseans would still be required to pay the debts owed, but the restoration of their voting rights eligibility would be based on having served one’s time rather than financial ability.
To access the policy brief, Tennessee’s Voting Rights Restoration Process is Overly Complicated, please visit thinktennessee.org/research/elections-civic-life/.