Chattanooga Times Free Press
Report claims more than one in five Black Tennesseans disenfranchised
NASHVILLE — More than 20% of Tennessee’s Black adults cannot vote because of a felony conviction, while an estimated 8% of the state’s overall adult population is disenfranchised, according to a newly released report.
The report, compiled by nonprofit The Sentencing Project, was recently made public ahead of Election Day, Nov. 3. Overall, the percentage of disenfranchised people in the U.S. has dropped in recent years, but disenfranchisement rates vary wildly state to state — particularly among racial and ethnic minorities.
“As of 2020, an estimated 5.17 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, a figure that has declined by almost 15% since 2016, as states enacted new policies to curtail this practice,” the report stated.
That improvement comes after a handful of states changed their policies on re- enfranchising some nonincarcerated populations — such as those on parole or probation — and other states overhauled their processes for how to regain certain civil rights.
Notably, Florida voters approved a ballot initiative in 2018 that sought to restore voting rights post- felony sentence. However, The Sentencing Project’s report noted Florida remains the nation’s “disenfranchisement leader in absolute numbers, with over 1.1 million people currently banned from voting” due to people’s inability to pay restitution or legal fees.
Meanwhile, in Alabama and Mississippi, more than 8% of each state’s overall adult population is estimated to be disenfranchised. That number jumps significantly for Black and Latino populations.
“African American disenfranchisement rates in Tennessee and Wyoming now exceed 20 percent of the adult voting age population,” the report states, adding that more than 36% of Black adults with felony convictions in Wyoming are barred from voting.
The report also warned that since the country’s Latino population has quadrupled since 1980, it’s likely that population will see an “increasing share of those disenfranchised due to felony convictions in coming years.”
In Tennessee, voter advocates have particularly criticized the state’s strict rules in getting voting rights restored. Currently, the state requires those who have been convicted of a felony in-state to have fully paid off their restitution and legal fees — a requirement that some argue creates an impossible burden for those who have been convicted. Others argue restoring voter rights is a useful tool in rehabilitating individuals after they leave prison.
A handful of voting rights groups tried to challenge a portion of Tennessee’s voting restoration rights earlier this year, saying the state was improperly barring some out- of- state felons from voting in the state’s August primary.
The plaintiffs had argued that people who’ve had their voting rights restored in the state of their felony conviction should not have to follow Tennessee’s additional rules on paying restitution and legal fees. A judge ultimately denied that request.
According to the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office, more than 3,400 individuals with felony convictions have had their voting rights restored since 2016.