This year’s legislative session is underway with bills already being discussed and passed. More than 130 bills have been filed that could impact ThinkTennessee’s issue areas of strengthening democracy and working families. Here are a few of the bills we’ll be watching closely.
ThinkTennessee envisions a state where all Tennesseans are civically engaged and trust in a transparent and effective state and local government. This session, the bills likely to impact this vision primarily include election bills, with a few related to judicial independence.
Legislators have filed 76 election-related bills, including at least 11 caption bills (which are placeholders that may be amended throughout the session). So far, bills address issues ranging from voter registration, election procedures, voting rights and restoration, and absentee voting to campaign finance and redistricting. We’ll be watching them all, with a particular interest in a handful of bills.
The majority of the filed election bills address various elements of election procedures, from the timing of elections, making elections partisan, the types of polling places available, and how ballots are counted and audited.
Partisan Elections. Currently, Tennesseans do not register as a member of a political party when registering to vote, and state law declares that municipal and judicial elections are nonpartisan.
- Two bills (HB 1045 (Kiesling)/SB 1144 (Hensley) and HB 0405 (Richey) and SB 0402 (Lowe)) would require voters to declare party affiliation (or be designated as independent) when they register to vote.
- HB 0262 (Richey)/SB 0405 (Hensley) would require state and local elections for public office – including judicial retention elections – to be partisan, requiring candidates to declare a party (or independent) status.
Access to Polling Places. Tennessee currently allows voters to cast votes before Election Day during an Early Voting period – an option traditionally used by more than half of Tennessee voters. And seven counties have moved to a Convenient Voting Center model of voting on Election Day that allows voters to use any polling place in the county rather than an assigned precinct. Bills have been introduced to both expand and reduce this access to polling places.
- HB 1099 (Davis)/SB 1101 (Bowling) proposed eliminating Early Voting in Tennessee, but after being introduced, it has since been withdrawn in the House. HB 0193 (Barrett)/SB 1108 (Bowling) would remove convenience vote centers as an option for counties.
- Alternatively, three additional counties are seeking to establish convenience vote center pilot programs: Henry County with HB 0632 (Darby)/SB 0477 (Stevens), Washington County with HB 0937 (Alexander)/SB 0839 (Crowe), and Warren County with HB 0863 (Sherrell)/SB 1118 (Bowling).
At least four bills touch on absentee voting, from expanding access to changing the prohibition on sharing absentee ballot application forms, a change ThinkTennessee is championing. It is currently against the law in Tennessee to give another person an application form to request an absentee ballot.
- HB 0600 (Powell)/SB 0326 (Akbari) would remove the Class E felony for giving someone the official application form and clarify what actions would result in a Class A misdemeanor.
Voting Rights and Restoration
Tennesseans convicted of felonies lose their right to vote, some permanently, while others become eligible to restore their voting rights after completing their sentence and paying required legal financial obligations.
- Four Democrat-sponsored bills seek to change when a Tennessean becomes eligible to restore their voting rights. HB 0687 (Freeman)/SB 0730 (Campbell), HB 0574 (Hemmer)/SB 0388 (Oliver), and HB 1256 (Dixie)/SB 1241 (Akbari) all seek to restore rights after sentence completion rather than after payment of financial obligations. While HB 0279 (McKenzie)/SB 0904 (Akbari) would allow those on payment plans for back-owed child support to become eligible.
- HB 1166 (Glynn)/SB 1073 (Yarbro) seeks to streamline the currently complicated process for restoring voting rights after a conviction by providing more detail to the process in state law.
- On the voting rights side, HB 0169 (Wright)/SB 0176 (Massey) would give voting rights for municipal elections to an additional member of an LLC that owns property in a city (even if those members are not residents) – increasing it from one member to two.
The once-a-decade redistricting process of redrawing legislative districts was completed last year, but a handful of bills filed this year continue to address the process.
- HB 0014 (Marsh)/SB 0216 (Johnson) would require the webpage of the House Select Committee on Redistricting to be archived. The webpage was formed last session to oversee the House’s redistricting process, and currently, the committee’s page and resources are no longer accessible online.
- Two bills seek to have an interactive map of House (HB 1491 (Clemmons)/SB 1525 (London)) and Senate (HB 1328 (Camper)/SB 1254 (Akbari)) districts available on the legislature’s website.
In addition to HB 0262 (Richey)/SB 0405 (Hensley), mentioned above, that would turn judicial retention elections into partisan races, we are also watching another discussion around judicial redistricting. Last year, the legislature passed HB 1832 (Lamberth)/SB 2011 (Bell), now Public Chapter 1098, establishing a role for the legislature in redrawing the judicial district map by 2027. In this week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Lundberg shared his intentions to revisit the judicial redistricting process again this year, and he has a caption bill, HB 1350 (Farmer)/SB 0305 (Lundberg) which will likely be amended in this way.
Our Working Families policy priorities include advocating for increased access to paid family leave for state employees, ensuring fair wages, mitigating the harms of court debt, encouraging more sustainable, more affordable, and more multimodal transportation, and access to high-quality, safe, and affordable housing.
Key bills filed in these issue areas that we’ll be watching include:
Paid Family Leave
Legislators have filed seven bills related to paid family leave policies this session, including two filed by legislative leadership.
- HB 0324 (Lamberth)/SB 0276 (Johnson) is a caption bill we anticipate will be used to carry the governor’s proposed family leave policy for state employees he mentioned in the State of the State address this week.
- HB 0983 (Sexton C.)/ SB 1458 (White) would require local education agencies to provide licensed employees with paid leave after the birth, stillbirth, or adoption of a minor child. Initially filed as offering 12 weeks of paid leave, the bill was introduced in the House subcommittee this week to instead offer six weeks.
Fines and Fees
Two bills seek to address the impact of court-assessed fines and fees.
- HB 0026 (Faison)/SB 0013 (Gardenhire) proposes allowing 180 days following a person’s release from imprisonment for a felony offense before requiring payment of outstanding court costs.
- HB 0749 (Powell)/ SB 0889 (Akbari) would remove juvenile fines and fees.
More than a dozen bills have been filed related to transportation. One of them, HB 0321 (Lamberth)/SB 0273 (Johnson) has already started to move through the House. This bill proposes to implement the governor’s Transportation Modernization Act of 2023, including enabling public-private partnerships, choice lanes, increasing the electric vehicle fee, and project delivery improvements.
Most of the bills filed that would address housing issues are currently caption bills. But two with language include HB 1172 (Dixie)/SB 1257 (Akbari) which would enact the “Homeowner Bill of Rights” and introduce new procedures for home foreclosures and HB (1192 (Williams)/SB 1334 (Bailey)) which would allow the Tennessee Housing Development Agency to establish secure campsites to support short-term housing needs.
We’ll be following along with the discussions of all these bills, and more, in the coming weeks. In particular, we’ll be supporting the bills addressing the absentee application process, paid family leave, and transportation modernization as opportunities to move the needle to strengthen democracy and support Tennessee’s working families. Take a look at our latest issue briefs: Allow for Sharing of Absentee Ballot Applications and Paid Family Leave is Good Business for Tennessee. And keep an eye out for upcoming transportation briefs on electric vehicles and choice lanes.