Felons must get gun rights back if they want voting rights restored, Tennessee officials say

Jan 23, 2024, 6:10 PM | Updated: 7:22 pm

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The state’s toughened voting rights restoration policy requires people convicted of a felony to get their gun rights restored before they can become eligible to cast a ballot again, Tennessee’s elections office said Tuesday, confirming a mandate that officials had been debating internally.

Last summer, election officials interpreted a state Supreme Court ruling as requiring that all convicted felons applying for reinstated voting rights first get their full citizenship rights restored by a judge or show they were pardoned. Voting rights advocates have argued the legal interpretation was way off-base.

The change, instituted by elections officials in July, has since halted almost all voting rights restorations: More than 60 people were denied and just one person approved. In the nearly seven months before it was implemented, about 200 people were approved and 120 denied, according to data from the secretary of state’s office.

State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins revealed the gun rights decision Tuesday when asked about it by The Associated Press. Pointing to the court’s ruling, he reiterated that someone’s full citizenship rights must be restored before they can regain the right to vote, and added, “Under the Tennessee Constitution, the right to bear arms is a right of citizenship.”

As recently as last month, Tennessee election officials expressed uncertainty about restoring the vote to convicted felons who hadn’t regained their gun rights, saying in court depositions that they were holding up 12 such applications while consulting with the state attorney general’s office.

All Tennessee felony drug crimes and felonies involving violence specifically strip away someone’s gun rights, and high-level action such as a pardon by a governor is needed to restore their voting rights, according to the Campaign Legal Center.

The center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group, had already filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the state over its previous voting rights restoration process — before the new rules even took place — arguing that it amounted to the suppression of Black voters.

The suit argues that the state fails to make clear which officials can sign the necessary forms, provides no criteria for denial, and offers no avenue for appeal. Tennessee also requires that applicants are up to date on restitution, court costs and child support payments. The state also already bars voting rights restoration for certain categories of crimes, if they were committed within certain date ranges.

The lawsuit was scheduled to go to trial last November. The policy change sparked by the high court’s decision spurred delays in court, making it unlikely that a trial will take place until after this year’s elections.

“Despite the Tennessee legislature’s clear intent to create meaningful pathways for voting rights restoration, the Elections Division, with help from the Attorney General’s office, continues to twist the law into tortured knots to prevent the 475,000 Tennesseans, including over 20% of voting age Black Tennesseans, with past felony convictions from voting,” said Blair Bowie, director of Campaign Legal Center’s Restore Your Vote.

In its June decision, the high court ruled against a man who sought to register to vote in the state after receiving clemency for a crime committed decades ago in Virginia. The court ruled that he still had to go through the process of restoring his voting rights.

Though Tennessee elections officials have acknowledged that the court ruling applied only to the specific circumstances of that case, they have said the wording was close enough to the requirements under state law to necessitate the broad policy change.

Even as lawmakers returned to work at the Capitol early this month, it remained unclear whether supermajority Republicans would push to return to the old reinstatement system. Senate Speaker Randy McNally, for one, would prefer even more restrictions, showing how tough it is to sell the issue in Tennessee.

“Overall, I’m not in favor of felons voting. I think they’ve committed a serious crime, serious offense against the state,” McNally told the AP earlier this month. “And until they’re out of jail and either been pardoned or exonerated for what they did, then they forfeit that right.”

The only person approved for voting rights restoration under the new system didn’t hit any snags in court, at least. A judge restored his “full rights of citizenship” in September, and the state elections office restored his voting rights in November.

Criminal defense attorney John Pellegrin said he helped his client get a judge to reinstate his citizenship rights, but wasn’t involved in helping him submit voting restoration documents. The new stricter requirements were news to him.

“I didn’t really find out about the change until after we had already done it,” Pellegrin told the AP. ___ This story has been corrected to show that the director of Campaign Legal Center’s Restore Your Vote is Blair Bowie, not Blair Bowe.

United States News

Law enforcement officials and medical personnel work the scene of an officer involved shooting near...

Associated Press

Missouri police charge man with 2 counts first-degree murder after officer, court employee shot

A man was charged Friday with two counts of first-degree murder for the killing of a court employee who tried to serve an eviction notice at a home in Independence, Missouri, and an officer who responded, prosecutors said. Larry Acree was also charged with first-degree assault in the wounding of the other officer who responded, […]

48 minutes ago

Associated Press

What to know about the latest court rulings, data and legislation on abortion in the US

A judge in Montana rejected abortion restrictions, the attorney general in Missouri is accusing Planned Parenthood of illegally transporting minors for abortions and new data shows how the way abortions they’re provided continues to shift in a nation where some states have bans and others are protecting access. More than a year and a half […]

1 hour ago

FILE - National Urban League president and CEO Marc Morial speaks at the National Urban League Annu...

Associated Press

Black Americans’ significant economic and civil rights progress threatened, report says

WASHINGTON (AP) — Black Americans have endured considerable injustices and barriers to prosperity and equality throughout U.S. history. But their social, economic and political advances in the 60 years since the enactment of major civil rights legislation have been unsatisfactory, according to a new annual study on racial progress. The “ State of Black America […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

With trash bins now required in NYC, only the rats are sorry to see the garbage piles go

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City’s tradition of piling garbage bags on the sidewalk for pickup is going the way of the dinosaur. As of Friday, all 200,000 businesses in the Big Apple are required to put out their bags of trash in garbage bins, as communities across the county and world have long […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

Authorities search for father and 2 young children in New Hampshire after mother found dead

MEREDITH, N.H. (AP) — Authorities were searching Friday for a father and his two young children after the children’s mother was found dead in a New Hampshire apartment. Authorities issed an Amber Alert just after 4 a.m. for the abduction of 4-year-old Elowyn Duren and 1-year-old Vaelyn Duren from the city of Berlin. Authorities said […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

Gaza doctor says gunfire accounted for 80% of the wounds at his hospital from aid convoy bloodshed

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — The head of a Gaza City hospital that treated some of those wounded in the bloodshed surrounding an aid convoy said Friday that more than 80% had been struck by gunfire, suggesting there had been heavy shooting by Israeli troops. At least 115 Palestinians were killed and more than 750 […]

4 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinics: transforming health care in the valley

Midwestern University, long a fixture of comprehensive health care education in the West Valley, is also a recognized leader in community health care.


Fiesta Bowl Foundation

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade is excitingly upon us

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade presented by Lerner & Rowe is upon us! The attraction honors Arizona and the history of the game.


Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Valley residents should be mindful of plumbing ahead of holidays

With Halloween in the rear-view and more holidays coming up, Day & Night recommends that Valley residents prepare accordingly.

Felons must get gun rights back if they want voting rights restored, Tennessee officials say