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Tennessee bill untangling gun, voting rights restoration has advanced

The bipartisan effort to untangle the two rights has cleared early hurdles, but several remain. The bill faces some GOP skepticism.
Tennessee bill untangling gun, voting rights restoration has advanced
Posted at 3:20 PM, Apr 05, 2024

Tennessee residents convicted of felonies can apply to vote again without restoring their gun rights under a bipartisan bill that faces some GOP skepticism as it advances late this session.

The effort by Democratic Rep. Antonio Parkinson and Republican Sen. Paul Bailey to untangle the two rights has cleared early hurdles but several remain in the annual session’s expected final weeks.

The proposal seeks to undo restrictions established in July, when election officials interpreted a state Supreme Court ruling as requiring people convicted of felonies to get their full citizenship rights restored by a judge, or show they were pardoned, before they can apply for reinstated voting rights. In January, the elections office confirmed that voting rights restoration would also require getting back gun rights.

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Since July, officials have approved 12 applications to restore voting rights and denied 135, according to the secretary of state’s office. In the seven months before, about 200 people were approved and 120 denied.

Voting rights advocates have argued the elections office's legal interpretations have been way off-base. A group of Democratic state lawmakers has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate. And a lawsuit over Tennessee's restoration process has been ongoing for years.

The bill would allow a judge to restore someone's right to vote separately from other rights, including those regarding guns, serving on a jury, holding public office and certain fiduciary powers.

People who have paid their debt to society should get some rights back, especially to vote, Bailey said.

"We want to clear that up," he said.

In Tennessee, felonies involving drugs or violence specifically remove someone's gun rights, and high-level action such as a pardon by a governor is needed to restore their voting rights.

The gun issue adds to an existing, complicated list of disqualifying felonies that differ depending on conviction date.

Expungement offers a separate path to restore voting rights, but many felonies are ineligible.

Tennessee had established a process under a 2006 law for people convicted of a felony to petition for the restoration of their voting rights. It allows them to seek restoration if they can show they have served their sentences and do not owe outstanding court costs or child support. An applicant wouldn't have to go to court or get a governor's pardon.

Now, applicants must get their citizenship rights back and complete the old process.

John Weare, a U.S. Navy veteran, told a House subcommittee Wednesday he has a decades-old aggravated assault charge in another state that eliminated his gun rights. He said he had been pursuing voting rights restoration for four years when the elections office decided he needs his gun rights back, too.

Weare, a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging voting rights restoration in Tennessee, said not being able to vote has made him feel like a "non-American."

"I'm asking you to support this bill allowing me the chance to vote according to my conservative Christian values that I hold dear," Weare said, "and allowing me to be an active participant in my community and to be part of the democratic process, for which I served my country to protect, and which makes our country so great."

But the bill's odds are uncertain. Some prominent Republicans have been skeptical.

When asked if changes to the system were needed, House Majority Leader William Lamberth has previously said, "My advice is don’t commit a felony."

Senate Speaker Randy McNally told The Associated Press early this year he would prefer even tougher restrictions. Republican Gov. Bill Lee has expressed openness to voting rights restoration reforms, but has said he thinks lawmakers should lead on potential changes.

Some Republican dissenters have said they'd rather lump it into a broad study of citizenship rights laws and a bill proposing changes next year.

"This entire code needs to be rewritten from top to bottom," Lamberth told reporters Friday.

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