Tennessee denies the right to vote to a higher share of its people than all but one U.S. state.
A recent study by the Sentencing Project found that around 471,600 Tennesseans, nearly 10% of the state, can't participate in elections because they have been convicted of a felony.
About 377,000 of those, or 80%, have theoretically paid their debts to society – completing prison sentences, parole or probation.
Roughly 1 in 5 Black people in Tennessee, or 21%, can't vote because of a felony conviction.
Though the state has a process that allows people convicted of felonies to restore their voting rights, those who've been through it say it's confusing and hard to complete.
"I think it's a tool to suppress the vote of certain parts of society," said Shane Terry, a Chattanooga resident who restored his voting rights in 2020 after losing them due to a felony conviction for marijuana and firearm possession.
Around 8% of Tennessee's Latino community is also disqualified from voting because of a conviction, the highest rate in the nation, according to the study.
In Hamilton County, an average of 200 people have lost the right to vote each year since 2017 because of a felony conviction, according to data from the county Election Commission. About 20 people per year have typically had their rights restored.
But in 2020, amid record voter turnout, 83 people restored their right to vote in Hamilton County. The same year, at least 125 people who attempted to register to vote were rejected because of a felony conviction, according to the commission.
That means that in the past five years, 1,197 Hamilton County residents lost their vote, while 179 gained it back.
"You've paid your duty to the community," the Rev. Ann Jones Pierre, president of the Chattanooga Hamilton County NAACP, said by phone. "You've completed the time that was assigned to you, you can go out on the street, but then you have this cloud hanging over you that says, yes, but you're not really a complete citizen."
Tennessee has the most obstacles to restoring the right to vote of any U.S. state, reform advocates say. The only state that disenfranchises more of its residents is Mississippi, according to the Sentencing Project.
"Tennessee has, by far, the most complicated both disenfranchisement and rights restoration laws in the country," said Blair Bowie, director of the Campaign Legal Center's Restore Your Vote campaign, in a phone interview.
It's one of 11 states that doesn't automatically restore voting rights to people after they've completed prison, probation or parole terms. The restoration process also isn't implemented the same way across the state, Bowie said.
Tennessee is the only state that disqualifies people from restoring their voting rights if they have any outstanding court costs, including child support payments. Child support payments don't pause when someone goes to prison and continue stacking up. In Tennessee, the average amount owed by incarcerated parents who aren't current on payments is more than $26,000, according to a 2020 report from the University of Memphis.
"You tack on all of the barriers in Tennessee for people coming out of prison – they have barriers to getting housing, they have barriers to getting jobs with a felony conviction," Tennessee ACLU Executive Director Kathy Sinback said by phone. "How are you going to pay $26,000 if you can't even get a place to live?"
Child support is a civil fee that isn't related to someone's conviction, advocates say. What counts as outstanding costs can also vary based on who you ask, Bowie said.
Terry, who lives in Orchard Knob, said child support balances were the most frustrating roadblock in his monthslong effort to regain a vote. He had arranged payments with his child's mother, Terry said, but the court didn't have a record of it, sending him on yet another errand to get proof of the arrangement.
"The systems don't talk to each other necessarily," Terry said. "Basically, I had to do a lot of leg work – I had to go places, I had to physically see people, I had to get signed documents notarized."
Though there is a process for voting rights restoration in place, the steps aren't widely known by the people who would use it, said Pierre, with the local NAACP. The Tennessee NAACP is in the middle of a lawsuit challenging how Tennessee does voting rights restoration.
"There are a lot of people who could get their rights back," Pierre said, "but they feel intimidated by the process and they feel intimidated by the system."
It isn't always clear, even to people convicted of a felony, whether they may be eligible to vote again. In Tennessee, people convicted between January 1973 and May 1981 never even lost their votes. Before and after that, certain convictions – including voter fraud, treason, murder and rape – permanently bar a person from restoring their vote.
To apply to get voting rights back, applicants must go back to their probation or parole officer or ask a court clerk to fill out information about the conviction.
"A lot of local probation offices are unfamiliar with the document. They won't fill it out," Bowie said. "Sometimes each will only fill out some part of the form, and sometimes they just won't fill it out at all."
That means even if applicants find the right person, they could still walk away without a completed form. There's no requirement for clerks or officers to issue a denial in writing or provide any reason for denying the request, which leaves applicants confused about the next steps, Bowie said.
A court clerk can provide background information about the past conviction and outstanding fees but can't determine whether a person is eligible to have voting rights restored, Hamilton County Criminal Court Clerk Vince Dean said by phone. That's up to the Election Commission, he said.
"If someone ever said that the clerk's office stopped them from getting their voting rights restored, it would only be because of something on their record that had not been taken care of," Dean said. "We're the keeper of the records. We don't make determinations like that."
The hurdles to restoration are even higher for people who were convicted in another state. Often clerks and parole officers aren't willing to fill out and sign forms from outside their jurisdiction, Bowie said, and applicants may have to physically travel to get forms signed in person.
Each state handles voting rights for felony convictions differently, making it even more confusing to navigate restorations across state lines.
In Georgia, voting rights are automatically restored when people successfully complete their sentence and any probation or parole period.
In Alabama, people can go through local probation and parole offices to restore voting rights unless they have certain convictions, clarified in a 2017 law.
Jay Rangel, who was convicted of aggravated assault in Georgia but now lives in Hixson, said he assumed his rights would be restored automatically after serving his sentence, as they were in Georgia.
But when he tried to register to vote in Tennessee, instead of a voter registration card, he received a paper in the mail that told him he had to restore his rights before casting a vote.
Bureaucrats bounced him between offices in both states for nearly two years, Rangel said. He had a probation officer assigned to him in Tennessee, but the officer told him he couldn't help him with the form since his conviction was out-of-state, Rangel said.
He eventually saw a Facebook post offering help with voting rights restoration and messaged the page. Rangel was put in touch with someone from Free Hearts, a Tennessee organization run by formerly incarcerated women, working on a vote restoration campaign.
The volunteer took down Rangel's information and pestered the Georgia probation office until a staff member sent him the final form he needed to submit to the Election Commission.
"What it took me two years to do, they did in two weeks," Rangel said.
The complicated process requires a lot of legwork from the person seeking to restore the vote, Terry said, especially when it seems like each step leads to more roadblocks.
"I had a couple people reach out to me when I first got mine (restored)," Terry said. "I told them to go for it, how it was going to be a grind, you're going to have to put in effort ... It was a test of your will to want to actually vote."
Losing the vote
Voter disenfranchisement affects Black and poor people in Tennessee at much higher rates, in a way that Terry says feels targeted.
"There's no real purpose for it. I understand certain things being withheld from you after you commit a crime as a motivator or incentive," he said. "But voting rights, that seems criminal, almost."
Stripping voting rights is meant to be part of the punishment for a felony, said state Rep. Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport.
"Justice by itself has nothing to do with it, it is straight-up retribution," Hulsey said by phone. "That's what it has always been -- this is what you did, and that's what you get."
Others say that losing voting rights is more reflective of systemic disadvantages for low-income people and those who have been incarcerated.
"I think it boils down to people believing that if you've gone to jail, then you're spotted," Pierre said. "Like, 'You're not as good as I am, and I don't really care because you should not have been involved in that.'"
Hulsey, who leads the House's subcommittee on criminal justice, said that people in his district seem more open to restoring votes to people with lower-level felonies, including nonviolent and white-collar charges, than for those convicted of violent crimes.
"Voting is a right, and it's important, so we're going to put it as part of this punishment and retribution package," Hulsey said.
Barriers to restoration mean that people with felony convictions are not accurately represented in the voting population, Sinback said. That means that laws and local policies that favor people convicted of serious crimes are less likely to pass, and people who champion them are less likely to be elected.
"It creates this legacy of entire families not voting, generations and blocks of people who aren't exercising their rights," Demetrus Coonrod, a Chattanooga City Council member, said in an interview.
Restoring voting rights also allows people to serve on juries, which Pierre with the NAACP says could lead to more equitable outcomes.
"People then are judged by their peers," she said by phone. "You bring a new set of information when you've been through that ... the lived experience is different than just abstractly thinking."
The feeling that their vote doesn't matter can also discourage people from seeking restoration in the first place, restored voters said, especially if they didn't vote before being convicted.
"For the longest, I never really understood what a vote means and how to use it to benefit or hurt my community," said Gary Shropshire, a Chattanooga resident who restored his voting rights in 2019 after losing them due to a felony conviction for aggravated assault.
He said party politics turned him off of voting, but local issues like school funding and resources drew him back to the polls. Since regaining his vote, Shropshire says he hasn't missed a single election.
"A lot of the hardworking, inner-city people don't really pay attention to local politics, which allows other people to just have their way," he said. "They're not seeing the same advantages, and maybe because they work most of the time they don't have time to keep up."
Coonrod, now representing Eastdale on the City Council, remembers a judge saying she would lose the right to vote when she was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2003 for conspiracy to commit armed robberies.
But after she got out, Coonrod said she went to vote and had her ballot accepted with no issues.
"Somebody must have missed checking the box on my paperwork," she said.
To make sure she was in the clear, Coonrod said she went through the restoration process anyway. Later, in order to run for her City Council seat, she also completed the process to have her citizenship rights restored. Now, she consults with people working on restoring their voting rights in Hamilton County.
Voting rights advocates say they'd like to see Tennessee move to restoring voting rights automatically, regardless of outstanding court fines.
"I think it should be like in Georgia," Rangel said in a phone interview. "But some states don't want you to vote."
One bill proposed in the statehouse this year would allow people to apply to restore their vote if they set up a payment plan for child support, instead of requiring people to be completely settled up. Hulsey, the criminal justice subcommittee chair, said he sees that as a reasonable measure because child support isn't related to a crime or conviction. The bill is set to be heard in committees in both chambers next week.
Another piece of legislation, which would have required community diversion and treatment programs to give exiting participants information about restoring their voting rights, was put on hold until next year.
Coonrod, who works with people restoring rights, said that providing that information as people leave the system would make it easier to start the restoration process.
"They should give you the form right then," Coonrod said. "And say, let's go ahead and fill it out now. Then you don't have to worry about the red tape, or wonder, where do I need to go?"
A third bill proposes allowing people convicted of "infamous crimes" – defined in state law as murder, rape, treason and voter fraud – to go through the voting rights restoration process. Right now, anyone convicted of those crimes is permanently barred from voting unless they are able to restore full citizenship rights through the courts. That bill has also been pushed back at the committee stage.
"It seems to be, in the past at least, if you take too big a bite, it's not successful," Hulsey said. "But when you take smaller bites, it can be."
Sinback, with the ACLU, said she doesn't expect the law to change anytime soon, based on the repeated failure of any bills that would ease voting requirements in the past few years.
"Anything that makes it easier to vote typically gets voted down," Sinback said. "I really do think that there is discriminatory intent."
How to restore your voting rights in Tennessee
Request a Certificate of Restoration application from your local county election office. In Hamilton County, you can call the election commission at 423-209-8683 to talk to a staff member about the process and your eligibility. The form can also be found online on the Tennessee secretary of state's website.
The form then needs to be filled out by a probation/parole officer or a corrections agency who can certify your sentence and any probation or parole has been completed. Then, either a probation/parole officer or court clerk must fill out part of the form certifying all court costs have been paid.
Turn in the form to your local election commission office, where it will be sent to the state for verification.
If you receive notice your application was accepted, you can then register to vote.