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JLUSA leader Dawn Harrington on restoring voting rights after a felony conviction in Tennessee

December 18, 2023

“In at least 35 states, those with felony convictions can vote again after their full sentence is complete, and several states have eased the path to voting rights restoration in recent years. But in Tennessee, where financial and logistical hurdles already prevent many from regaining their rights, the process has become harder. In July, Tennessee officials issued new guidance mandating that instead of choosing between two paths of restoration, those with felony convictions would need to complete both.

“Nearly 10% of the voting population in Tennessee is excluded from the polls because of felony convictions, a rate second only to Mississippi and one that especially affects people of color. One in five Black Tennessee residents is unable to vote because of a felony conviction, the highest rate in the nation.

This is a huge obstacle that has been put in front of us.

“‘We have already had, before this new rule, the most complex voter restoration laws of any state,’ said Dawn Harrington [Leading with Conviction™ 2017], founder of Free Hearts in Nashville that supports families navigating incarceration. ‘This is a huge obstacle that has been put in front of us.’

“The Tennessee Secretary of State’s office reported that nearly 3,350 Tennesseans regained their voting rights since 2018, which is fewer than one percent of those disenfranchised with a felony conviction who have completed their sentences.

“The new guidance has further slowed the pace of restoration but has also spurred a new sense of urgency around the issue. Free Hearts and other reentry support groups have begun collaborating across the state to educate more attorneys on the process and to push harder for action from lawmakers and Gov. Bill Lee. …

“Harrington is looking directly to [Republican governor] Lee for action. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, also a Republican, issued an executive order in 2020 restoring voting rights for those with felony convictions who completed their sentences, with the exception of homicide offenses. Harrington discussed the concept with members of Lee’s and Reynolds’s staff in March and said Lee’s officials seemed receptive to the concept. That was before the Secretary of State’s office made the voting process more challenging.

“‘We need the Governor to act,’ Harrington said.”

Read the full story at TennesseeLookout.com.

RELATED: DeAnna Hoskins on why felony disenfranchisement should concern all Americans.

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