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Ex-Felons Sue For Uniform Process to Restore Voting Rights


Former felons looking to have their voting rights restored in Tennessee face a legal process that differs from county to county, according to a new legal challenge. The lawsuit filed on behalf of several former felons and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) argues that the patchwork policies wrongfully deny some people re-enfranchisement.

“That matters a lot in this particular case because we’re talking about the key to the exercise of the fundamental right to vote," says Blair Bowie with the Campaign Legal Fund, one of the groups behind the lawsuit. "So it’s really important that processes in place be uniform and fair.”

Felons convicted after 1981 in the state automatically lose their voting rights. But many—excluding those who commited the most serious crimes such as rape or muder—can restore them by completing what’s known as a Certificate of Restoration, or COR.

COR eligibility includes fulfilling probation or parole requirements, paying off certain legal debts and staying up-to-date on child support payments.

But Bowie says the system lacks state-level oversight. In some counties, court clerks will sign off on the forms. In others, probation officials are expected to complete the certificates. Some refuse, Bowie says, sometimes citing a lack of access to records to determine eligibility. 

“There’s no standard place where someone can go within their county to ask for this or a statewide office to ask for it so there’s no formal initiation mechanism," she says. “It’s just sort of a wild goose chase of running around trying to find an official who’s willing to do it.”

Local officials are not required to formally explain why a COR may be denied. This, Bowie says, prevents people from appealing decisions they think may have been made in error. And errors, she adds, are common when local officials try to determine which outstanding court costs or restitutions need to be paid to get a certificate.

“You might have different interpretations of certain gray areas of ambiguities in the law from county to county,” Bowie says. “The cost of these errors is that people lose their voice.”

The haphazard approach to the process, the complaint argues, violates a constitutional protection of due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. At a minimum, “tens of thousands of eligible voters” are unable to restore their rights because of deficiencies in the system, the lawsuit says.

Tennessee has the second-highest rate of felony disenfranchisement in the country, according to a report from the Sentencing Project. About nine percent of the state’s adult population cannot vote because of a felony conviction. For African Americans, one in every five have been disenfranchised because of convictions.

One of the lawsuit's five plaintiffs, Shelby County resident Lamar Perry, tried to initiate the process to restore his voting rights this year in hopes of casting a ballot in the 2020 presidential election. But, he says he was told by a court clerk that he still has outstanding legal debt to take care of to receive his COR.

But the lawsuit says the $952 he still owes the legal system for a 2006 forgery charge is a fine—separate from court costs, which would prevent him from getting his certificate. 

“That was very unfair to me and all the others who this [has] happened to,” Perry says. “I think everybody deserves a second chance.”

The lawsuit calls out Rutherford County specifically for charging a $25 fee to process a certificate, calling it an illegal poll tax.

The Tennessee Attorney General's office said it was reviewing the lawsuit and considering next steps. A spokesperson for Governor Bill Lee, who is named in the lawsuit, said the governor wouldn’t comment on pending litigation.