Tennessee considers easing felon voting rights restoration

Friday, February 8, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 6

NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers are considering a move to make it easier for some felons to get their voting rights restored.

The legislation would lift the Republican-led state's unique requirement for formerly incarcerated individuals to be up-to-date on child support before restoration of voting rights, in addition to other court fines and restitution.

It would also aim to simplify the bureaucratic process for those people to get their rights back once they're out of prison and off parole and probation.

The legislation has made partners of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and Americans for Prosperity, who headlined a news event Wednesday touting the bill. Tori Venable, state director of Americans for Prosperity, said the legislation offers common ground for her group, at times perceived as right-leaning, and the ACLU, sometimes thought of as left-leaning.

Also on hand Wednesday was Tennessee's Matthew Charles, one of the first prisoners released under criminal justice legislation President Donald Trump recently signed with the support of the ACLU and Americans for Prosperity. Charles was a guest of Trump at the State of the Union speech this month.

Advocates have long argued that Tennessee's current system makes it largely impossible for many low-income people leaving prison to ever vote again because they're unlikely to catch up on their hefty child support payments and court fines.

An estimated 320,000 Tennesseans — or about 8 percent of the state's voting age population — have felony convictions and are disenfranchised from participating in the state's elections. Only about 11,600 have gotten their voting rights restored from 1990 through 2015, according to a report by Think Tennessee, a nonprofit think-tank.

The bill doesn't wipe away the debt, but simply eliminates the legal financial obligation prerequisite to once again receive the right to vote.

Rep. Michael Curcio, who is sponsoring the bill alongside fellow Republican Sen. Steven Dickerson, said the goal is to cut through a "mountain of red tape" to get voting rights restored for people who have paid their debts to society.

"We're not creating a new eligibility class at all," Curcio said at Wednesday's event. "These are folks that we've already said, with sort of one hand behind our back with our fingers crossed, 'you're eligible.' We've just put a whole lot of paper and burdens between here and there so that most folks don't ever actually get to achieve that point."

Advocates say the Tennessee bill would still ban voting rights restoration for people with convictions of murder, rape, treason, voter fraud, sexual offenses involving a minor, and some bribery, public official misconduct or government operations interference felonies.

Previously, Tennessee's list of felonies that made a person ineligible to vote was dependent on specific date ranges that varied over whether a person was convicted for the past two decades.

The bill also keeps Charles in the limelight as a national face of criminal justice reform.

He was originally sentenced to 35 years in prison in 1996 for selling crack cocaine. Then he was resentenced and ordered back to prison two years after a judge ruled his sentence was unfair, drawing national attention last year. He was released from prison in January.

"I feel that restoring a person's voting rights is allowing them to see not only that they've received a second chance but society's acceptance of that as well," Charles said.