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Tennessee GOP leaders see no issue with state's voting-rights restoration system

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee's top Republican lawmakers say they have no issue with the state's strict policy on restoring voting rights for those convicted of a felony, arguing that people shouldn't have violated the law if they wanted to continue casting ballots.

Earlier this week, Tennessee's elections office confirmed to The Associated Press that convicted felons must get their gun rights restored before they can become eligible to vote. The announcement shocked civil rights advocates, who countered that the state's system is already arduous and this latest requirement will only further worsen voter disenfranchisement throughout the state. Others expressed shock at tying firearm access to voting.

However, in GOP-dominant Tennessee, Republican leaders have repeatedly shrugged off calls to reform the state's voting-rights restoration policy. This year is poised to be no different as many members are preparing to run for reelection in a deeply conservative state.

“My advice is don't commit a felony,” House Majority Leader William Lamberth told reporters on Thursday. “If you’ve been convicted of a felony, it’s going to take a little bit of work to reenter society fully. We’ve made a pathway for that. But the best way to not have to deal with that issue is don’t commit the felony to begin with.”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton also said he saw no issue with the state's policy, saying that there are “consequences to various acts."

Meanwhile, Senate Speaker Randy McNally told the AP earlier this month that he would prefer even more restrictions.

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

Democratic lawmakers, who have only a sliver of power inside the Statehouse, responded with anger and sadness at the response from their GOP colleagues.

“You should not have to wear this scarlet letter of sorts that prevents you from participating in our most basic concept of democracy,” said Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Democrat from Memphis.

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.

Yet the issue over gun rights wasn't revealed until Tuesday, when State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins told the AP 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.”

Akbari said she was troubled by the Secretary of State's interpretation and called on the General Assembly to pass legislation to define what it means to be a voter in Tennessee.

“To say that someone shouldn't commit crimes if they want to be able to have the right to vote is just unacceptable,” she said. “It's un-American.”

Democratic Rep. Joe Towns likened the state's policy to Jim Crow-era laws that were put in place with the intent of stopping Black people from participating in elections. He said that it was no different than the tests used to be in place to register to vote, where Black voters were asked to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar and were denied when they guessed incorrectly.

“It’s the same old ploy to prevent people from having the right to vote,” he said.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who has touted his support for criminal justice reform, told reporters in October that changes to the voting rights restoration process are “worth a conversation.” But he said “it’s much more appropriate to use the process of legislation” involving lawmakers than for him to issue an executive order to restore voting rights.

Keeda Haynes, a plaintiffs attorney in an ongoing federal lawsuit against Tennessee’s voting rights restoration system, said the GOP legislative leaders’ comments are disappointing, but she hopes they aren’t fully representative of the Tennessee Legislature. She also noted that the governor’s remarks preceded the election office’s determination about gun rights.

“Regardless of the comments, we’re still going to be calling on the governor to do what’s right,” said Haynes, who is with an advocacy group called Free Hearts led by formerly incarcerated women like her. “We’re going to be calling on the legislature to do what’s right.”

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Associated Press writer Jonathan Mattise contributed from Nashville.