Tennessee court rules man who received clemency in Virginia still can’t register to vote

Jun 29, 2023, 3:26 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s Supreme Court on Thursday ruled against a man who sought to register to vote in the state after receiving clemency for a crime committed decades ago in Virginia.

Ernest Falls was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Virginia in 1986, according to court documents. He moved to Tennessee in 2018. In 2020, then-Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam granted Falls clemency, restoring his full rights of citizenship. But when Falls tried to register to vote in Tennessee, he was prevented from doing so. That’s because of a Tennessee law that requires people seeking to restore their voting rights to first prove they have paid all outstanding court costs, restitution and child support obligations.

At issue is whether that section of Tennessee law should be read together with another section that prohibits people who have been convicted of certain crimes in other states from voting in Tennessee unless their rights have been restored.

During oral arguments before the Tennessee Supreme Court last year, Falls’ attorney William Harbison argued that someone who has full rights of citizenship shouldn’t be subjected to having to get their voting rights restored. In a dissenting opinion on Thursday, Justice Sharon Lee agreed.

“Mr. Falls’ voting rights were fully restored; he should not be denied his constitutional right to vote,” she concluded.

But the majority ruled that the two sections of Tennessee law should be read together and that Falls must submit proof that he has none of the outstanding financial obligations that would disqualify him from having his voting rights restored.

The Campaign Legal Center brought the case on behalf of Falls. The nonprofit argues Tennessee has “likely the highest rate” of voter disenfranchisement in the United States — particularly among Black voters — after Florida voters approved a ballot initiative in 2018 that sought to restore voting rights post-felony sentence.

According to a 2016 report by The Sentencing Project, an estimated 421,000 Tennesseans cannot vote because of felony convictions — or about 8.2% of the state’s total voting-age population.

A separate lawsuit pending in federal court claims Tennessee’s process for restoring voting rights is unconstitutional and works to silence Black voters in particular. That case is also led by the led by the Campaign Legal Center and was filed on behalf of the Tennessee NAACP and five Tennessee residents who unsuccessfully attempted to restore their right to vote.

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Tennessee court rules man who received clemency in Virginia still can’t register to vote