Tennessee's path for those convicted of a felony to restore their right to vote has not only silenced Black voters but also contains constitutional and federal law violations, a newly filed federal lawsuit alleges.
Voter rights advocates submitted the 46-page class action complaint Thursday, arguing the state's current process is “unequal, inaccessible, opaque, and error-ridden," while stressing that it has resulted in a “disparate impact” on Black Tennesseans.
The legal challenge is being led by the Campaign Legal Center on behalf of the Tennessee NAACP and five Tennessee residents who have unsuccessfully attempted to restore their right to vote.
Defendants named in the lawsuit include Republican Gov. Bill Lee, Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker, Secretary of State Tre Hargett, the state's Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins, and the Rutherford County circuit court clerk.
Spokespeople for the defendants all declined to comment on the pending litigation. The Attorney General's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Taken together, these deficiencies demonstrate defendants’ creation of a woefully inadequate rights restoration system, devoid of adequate process, that erroneously deprives tens of thousands of eligible voters of their statutory right to a (certificate of restoration of voting rights)," the complaint reads.
The lawsuit comes as Tennessee's disenfranchisement rates among Black adult voters remains notably high as the national rate has seen declines, according to a report by nonprofit The Sentencing Project. More than 20% of Tennessee's Black voting age population cannot vote due to a felony conviction, while an estimated 8% of the state’s overall adult population is disenfranchised.
Tennessee law outlines various paths to restoring voting rights after a convicted felon completes their sentence, but advocates have long complained that the process is broken and overly cumbersome.
According to the complaint, Tennessee has delegated voter rights restoration efforts to county-level officials and the corrections agency rather than have a central office handle the task. This means each of the state's 95 counties have a slightly different system. Furthermore, there's no opportunity to appeal if a person believes they've been wrongly denied.
Under state law, convicted felons must fully pay off their restitution, court costs and be up-to-date on child support before restoration of voting rights can be approved. However, the lawsuit says that counties have spiked applications due to errors in determining a person's outstanding restitution and court costs because there is no statewide system that tracks such information.
One of the plaintiffs, Curtis Gray Jr. of Shelby County, said he was blocked from getting his voting rights restored because the county said he has outstanding legal fees. Gray, who was convicted of drug possession, says he owes only $279 in court costs, but the county says he still has to pay much more than that — including a $500 fine.
The lawsuit alleges that Tennessee law does not require fines to be paid in full in order to restore a person's right to vote.
Similarly, Lamar Perry also alleges that Shelby County officials wrongly denied his application by claiming he still has $1,160 in court costs even though his records show that the only outstanding fee is a $952.10 criminal fine — which attorneys argue shouldn't bar him from getting his right to vote restored.
Meanwhile, attorneys have specifically named Rutherford County's county clerk of circuit court because of the county's requirement that people seeking rights restoration pay a $25 processing fee. Attorneys says this is “effectively a poll tax.”
The governor and other defendants are accused of violating the U.S. Constitution’s requirements of Procedural Due Process and Equal Protection, as well as components of the National Voter Registration Act.
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