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VOL. 43 | NO. 9 | Friday, March 1, 2019

Bipartisan push in Legislature for increased voter access

By Kathy Carlson

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Of dozens of bills before the state Legislature on voting this year, many would make it easier to cast ballots or register to vote, potentially benefiting students, the elderly and disabled, and people with felony records.

“I think voting is very fundamental to who we are as Americans,” says Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville. “I think ballot access is nonpartisan. We have to assure ourselves that our ballot is counted and that people who are duly registered can vote.”

His top-priority voting bill aims to remove barriers to felons regaining their right to vote. He and Rep. Michael Curcio, R-Dickson, initially co-sponsored the bill. Since then, Sens. Brenda Gilmore and Raumesh Akbari, both Democrats, have become co-sponsors, and Reps. Harold Love Jr., D-Nashville, and William Lamberth, R-Portland, have signed on as co-sponsors in the House.

Dickerson, who has co-sponsored at least three other election- or voting-related bills with Democrats, says he’s optimistic the bill will pass.

Tennessee has one of the most complex felon-disenfranchisement policies in the country, according to research at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, a nonpartisan law and policy institute. The Center also reports there has been a push in recent years toward easing restrictions on voting rights for felons.

A 2016 report of The Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit focusing on criminal justice issues, classified state laws on felons and voting, from the least restrictive – two states that place no restrictions on voting for felons – to the most restrictive, a group that includes Tennessee. In addition, some states forbid felons from voting while in prison, while others forbid voting in prison and on parole. Others include probation as a time when voting is forbidden.

Tennessee was among the states that imposed additional restrictions beyond prison, parole and probation, requiring felons to pay all court costs, for example. It is the only state that requires felons to be up to date on child-support payments as a condition for seeking voting rights.

Some 300,000 or more Tennesseans might be eligible to regain voting rights under his proposed legislation, Dickerson says.

The bill proposed by Dickerson and others would continue to permanently keep those convicted of first-degree murder, aggravated rape, treason, voter fraud and certain other felonies from voting. People would also have to complete their prison sentence, probation or parole before they could apply to regain the right to vote, and they could apply for restoration upon receiving a pardon.

Failure to pay fines or child support would not disqualify a person with a felony record from seeking to have their voting rights restored, although they still have to make any required payments. And those with felony records would not have to go to court to regain their right to vote under the proposed legislation.

Dickerson says he was first inspired to tackle restoration of voting rights of felons by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has been working on the issue as early as 2013. A recent news conference on Dickerson and Curcio’s bill drew supporters that included the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Prosperity, funded by the conservative Koch brothers.

Additional bills being weighed this year would make it easier and more convenient for voters to register and cast ballots.

Students would benefit from proposals that would allow first-time voters to vote by absentee ballot after registering to vote online or through the mail. Current law requires them to vote in person and show identification. That has created hardship for students attending college away from home and wanting to cast their first vote, Dickerson adds.

A bill co-sponsored by Dickerson and Love would allow first-time voters to vote absentee upon providing proof of identification, such as a color photograph of the voter holding his or her photo identification, to the coordinator of elections as part of the absentee-ballot application. The fiscal note to the bill says the estimated fiscal impact of this change wouldn’t be significant.

Several bills would merge voter registration with driver’s license applications and renewals.

One such bill would require the state Department of Safety to obtain the same information required to register to vote as part of the process for applying for a driver’s license. The person seeking the license or photo ID could opt out of registering to vote. Otherwise the information would be sent to the county election commission within 10 days after the Department of Safety accepted the info, or sooner if it was close to the deadline to register.

The fiscal note to the bill estimates its cost at $600,000 in one-time expenses and $100,000 in annual recurring costs. The new voter registration option would be in effect for the 2020 elections.

A similar bill would essentially allow teens to preregister to vote, based on their application for a driver’s license or learner’s permit before they turn 18. They would be registered to vote upon turning 18.

Some state college students wouldn’t have to leave campus to vote under another bill, which would require polling places to be set up during early voting at public colleges with at least 8,000 enrolled students.

Another bill would increase, from at least once a year to at least once each fall and spring semester, the number of times a county election commission must conduct supplemental voter registrations at public and private high schools. The high schools also would have to allow students to register to vote online at times other than the supplemental registrations.

Elderly or disabled voters may be able to vote where they live if they live in specific institutional settings. And another bill would require local election commissioners to give elderly and disabled voters 50 days’ notice that they can vote absentee if polling places aren’t accessible to them. Currently they must give 45 days’ notice.

Convenience voting pilot projects, which allow people to vote at any county polling place on Election Day, would expand under other measures.

State Sen. Shane Reeves, a Republican who represents part of Rutherford County, says convenience voting has worked well in Rutherford County. It makes it possible for people to vote close to where they work, for example, rather than having to commute back home to get to their home precinct, he says. Reeves thinks that convenience voting helped Rutherford County post record turnout in the November 2018 elections.

Dickerson says that, based on anecdotal evidence, there may be more bills this year in the Legislature on voter rights. The last couple of elections have been highly publicized, he adds. “Making sure every vote counts is important. … It’s a pretty exciting time to be in government.”

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