Tennessee has sharply restricted the conditions under which it will restore voting rights to people who have completed prison sentences for felonies, joining a growing list of Republican-controlled states that have rolled back access to the ballot by former felons.
The state has for years permitted most people with completed felony sentences to restore their voting rights through an administrative process established in 2006 that is ostensibly automatic, but in practice almost unnavigable.
Only 3,400 people, or less than 1 percent of all disenfranchised Tennesseans, have had their voting rights restored under the program, said Blair Bowie, the director of the Restore Your Vote initiative at the Campaign Legal Center, a voting-rights advocacy group in Washington.
But in a letter sent to local election officials on Friday, the elections coordinator for Tennessee’s secretary of state said the state would now require that formerly incarcerated people also be granted clemency by the governor’s office or have their citizenship rights restored by a circuit court judge.
Tennessee had already been consistently rated as making it more difficult for all residents to vote than almost any state in the nation, a statistic that is reflected in the state’s lagging voter turnout rates.
The situation is particularly acute for people with felony convictions. According to a 2022 report by the Sentencing Project, a criminal reform advocacy group, nearly 472,000 Tennessee residents remain disenfranchised because of past felony convictions, the second-highest total in the nation. Only Florida, with 1.15 million disenfranchised citizens, is higher.
The latest decision puts Tennessee in a class with Virginia and Mississippi as the only states in which restoring voting rights is a matter of official discretion.
Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 that automatically restored voting rights, but the State Legislature later added conditions to the restoration process that have made it all but impossible for most people to complete the procedure.
Many state governments have moved steadily in recent years to automatically grant voting rights to people who have completed felony sentences, with some exceptions made for those convicted of murder or sexual offenses.
But some Republican states have moved lately to tighten the rules, beginning with the action by the Florida legislature in 2019. In March, Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, a Republican, belatedly revealed that he had rescinded an executive order that automatically restored voting rights to some 300,000 formerly incarcerated people since 2013.
And in April, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling that had awarded voting rights to some 56,000 people who had been released from prison but had not completed parole or other terms of their felony convictions.
Tennessee’s new policy not only “makes the process more difficult than it has ever been,” but also returns the restoration of voting rights to the discretion of judges or governors, Ms. Bowie said.
Removing that discretion was the exact problem the automatic restoration process was supposed to solve, she said.
“The Tennessee elections division is anti-voter,” Ms. Bowie said. “They’re just using every tool at their disposal to make sure people don’t have their voting rights.”
A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Tre Hargett of Tennessee did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new policy.
The Campaign Legal Center had already filed a lawsuit accusing the state of failing to properly carry out its automatic rights restoration process.
The letter establishing the new voting policy stated that the change was required by a state Supreme Court ruling last month involving a Virginia man convicted of manslaughter whose voting rights had been restored by Mr. Youngkin’s predecessor, Ralph Northam.
In that case, the man, who had since moved to Tennessee, contended that the Virginia rights restoration meant that he did not have to reapply for voting rights in Tennessee. The Supreme Court disagreed, citing a 1981 Tennessee law that denied voting rights to anyone convicted of an “infamous crime” without a pardon or “a full restoration” of citizenship rights by the state. The court said that the man had to meet the requirements of that law as well as to complete the ostensibly automatic rights restoration process set out in the 2006 law.
The court limited its ruling to people like the Virginia man whose voting rights had been restored elsewhere, but who had since moved to Tennessee. The elections coordinator’s letter said, however, that the ruling “requires the same interpretation” in cases involving people whose felonies were committed in Tennessee.