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One in five Black residents of Tennessee are prohibited by state law from voting. In combination with numerous other election barriers, advocates say, people of color have been broadly disenfranchised by white lawmakers maintaining their grip on power in the state. 

Tennessee has one of the most draconian laws in the country stripping voting rights from people convicted of felonies. More than 450,000 citizens in the state, disproportionately Black and Latino, are affected.

“We are not going to have a fully functional electorate unless more people have access to voting,” said Kathy Sinback, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. “All of these policies have a disproportionate effect on our marginalized communities, our Black and brown communities. It truly is a remnant of what happened after the Civil War, when mass incarceration began and there was a concerted effort to disenfranchise, to police Black people to the point where they did not have full citizenship rights.”

Since the 2020 presidential election, access to voting and political representation has become even less equal.

In 2020, amid concerns about COVID-19 exposure, a court blocked the state’s requirement that first-time voters appear in person at a polling place. That ruling has since been overturned

Voters must qualify under a specific set of circumstances to cast absentee ballots in Tennessee. Fear of COVID-19 exposure or transmission is not one of them. When casting a ballot in person, Tennessee voters face one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. They’re required to present a photo ID issued by the state or federal government, and student IDs, even from state colleges and universities, are specifically prohibited

Some attempts by Tennessee’s Republican-controlled state legislature to restrict voting have been successfully blocked in court, including a law that would have required special training for volunteers organizing voter registration drives and made it a crime if they submitted forms with “deficiencies.” 

Earlier this year, the legislature passed a new law requiring that state and county election officials “consult with the speaker of the senate and the speaker of the house of representatives” before agreeing to implement election policy changes stemming from a court order or settlement with the federal government. It also empowers the legislature to take legal action against state officials if they’re not following state election law, including that new requirement.

About this series

This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

Other new state laws since 2020 prohibit local cities and towns from accepting private foundation funding to expand access to voting in communities with fewer taxpayer-funded resources; ban local communities from implementing a “ranked-choice voting” system similar to what is now used in states such as Alaska and Maine; and also ban them from allowing non-citizens to vote on local matters.

Tennessee ranked fifth worst among U.S. states in voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election, something the ACLU’s Sinback describes as “directly related to the barriers that are intentionally set up to voting by the General Assembly.”

Felony disenfranchisement

Across the country, felony disenfranchisement laws prohibit 2.3% of the U.S. adult population from voting. They were first enacted to keep formerly enslaved Black men from voting and winning elections in Southern states where they vastly outnumbered their former enslavers, laws that then spread across the country. 

Even as states have moved to reform those laws, some still have lifetime voting bans for people with felonies. Almost all the rest disenfranchise people temporarily after conviction.

In Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, that disenfranchisement rate, at more than 8%, is nearly four times the national average.   

For disproportionately over-policed Black people in Tennessee, the disenfranchisement rate is 20%. The state strips voting rights from people convicted of felonies until they have served their sentence, completed all forms of probation and parole and paid off any fines or fees associated with their conviction. Tennessee is the only state to also require that the formerly incarcerated be current on any outstanding child support payments before having voting rights restored.

Even those who can satisfy all those requirements are unlikely to be able to navigate the process for proving they have. Only a small percentage of formerly incarcerated people who are eligible for voting rights restoration actually achieve it.

“We have one of the most archaic and complicated laws when it comes to the restoration process,” said Sherese Da Silva, a policy fellow with the Nashville-based Equity Alliance. “We have a lot of people who should be eligible to vote, but the process is so complex. I think a lot of them just give up.” 

Sinback has tried to help formerly incarcerated people work their way through it, and even as an attorney with expertise in the law, she has found it nearly impossible. “Very few people are able to navigate that process,” she said. 

Da Silva’s organization is working with Black communities where the impact of Tennessee’s voting restrictions have hit hard and led to a widespread disconnection from the democratic process.

She cited Black children charged as adults in the Tennessee court system. “They’re losing these voting rights before they even know what that means,” Da Silva said.

Sinback also sees a broader impact on children raised by formerly incarcerated parents.

“They’re seeing their parent’s voice doesn’t matter,” she said. “There’s radiating impacts generationally from people not being able to vote. Children being able to see their parents voting and being able to see their parents take part in the democratic process is extremely important.”

The purpose of the criminal justice system “should be to restore people back to full members of the community,” Sinback added. When your voting rights are taken away, “no matter what you do, even if you’ve served your time, even if you’ve completed your debt to the community, you’re still not one of us.”

After protests over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor erupted throughout Tennessee and across the country with the rallying cry of “Black Lives Matter” in 2020, Republicans in the state legislature passed a law that would charge people participating in certain kinds of nonviolent protests with felonies punishable by up to six years in prison. This means, for example, Black people’s right to vote could be stripped away if they participate in protests against restrictions on their right to vote.

“It sends the message to certain communities where mass incarceration is most prevalent that their vote doesn’t matter; that they’re not wanted in the process,” Sinback said.

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Matt DeRienzo is editor-in-chief of the Center for Public Integrity. Previously, he was vice president...