Nearly half a million Tennesseans with felony convictions will be ineligible to vote in the 2024 elections unless they have the right to own firearms restored, officials say.
Under new rules quietly introduced by state election officials, felons can only be reinstated to vote once their full citizenship rights are restored, State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins told the Associated Press.
“Under the Tennessee Constitution, the right to bear arms is a right of citizenship,” Mr Goins said.
The new voter registration rules came into effect after a contentious Tennessee Supreme Court decision last June which barred a man from registering to vote after he received clemency for a crime committed decades ago in Virginia.
Election officials have interpreted the decision as meaning that all convicted felons who apply to have their voting rights restored must first regain full citizenship rights from a judge or show they were pardoned.
Voting rights advocates have blasted the interpretation as inaccurate, and say the ruling will disproportionately impact voters of colour.
The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan voting rights group, filed a class-action lawsuit against Tennessee challenging the state’s voter reinstatement processes before the latest rulings came into effect.
It argued that the opaque rules governing voter restoration fail to provide clear reasons for a denial and don’t allow appeals.
Blair Bowie, director of Campaign Legal Center’s Restore Your Vote, told the Associated Press that state election officials “continue to twist the law into tortured knots” to prevent the 475,000 Tennesseans with historic felony convictions from voting.
The Independent has contacted the Tennessee secretary of state’s office for further comment and clarification of the rules.
Tennessee has among the most restrictive voting laws in the United States, with nearly 10 per cent of voting age residents barred from taking part in elections, according to The Sentencing Project.
More than 20 per cent of Black Tenneseans and eight per cent of Latinos are currently excluded from the democratic process due to past convictions, the group says.
Under the state constitution, reinstatement for felons convicted of crimes such as murder or voter fraud depends on the year that the crime was committed and is at the discretion of the governor.
Prior to the new rules coming into effect, Tennessee felons only had to settle all outstanding court-ordered restitution and costs and have a “certificate of restoration” form approved in order to cast a ballot.
Under the onerous new requirements, ex-felons must have their full citizenship rights restored, including the right to own guns, or obtain a pardon from the governor. Only then can they request to have their certification restored.
Felons are automatically prohibited from purchasing, storing or carrying guns without court approval under Tennessee law.
Since the new rules were ushered in last July, voting right restorations in Tennessee have ground to a halt, the Associated Press reported.
Of the five dozen residents who have applied for reinstatement, just one has been approved. That compared to around 80 approvals from 200 restoration applications in the seven months before the ruling.