Tennessee bill to untangle gun and voting rights restoration is killed for the year

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers have killed a bipartisan bill for the year that would have let residents convicted of felonies apply to vote again without also restoring their gun rights.

Democratic Rep. Antonio Parkinson and Republican Sen. Paul Bailey advanced the bill late in Tennessee’s annual legislative session. But a split House committee voted 8-6 on Wednesday to send the bill to a summer study before next year’s legislative session, effectively spiking it for 2024, barring some unusual move.

“We’re not giving people the chance to get back to being a productive citizen, getting back to living life,” Parkinson told The Associated Press after the vote. “We want them to pay for the rest of their lives for a mistake that they made, and it’s sad, and sickening.”

Some Republicans argued they prefer to study citizenship rights issues in state law more broadly this summer and propose various changes next year.

“They’ve committed the felony, there’s a punishment for that, but once it’s over, there’s a road back to redemption,” said Republican House Majority Leader William Lamberth. “We’ve allowed that road to become too cumbersome and twisted, instead of straight and easy. I’m all for rewriting the code. But I don’t think just this bill is the way to do it.”

Lamberth has previously downplayed concerns surrounding the state’s policy on restoring voting rights, saying his “advice is don’t commit a felony” and that the “best way to not have to deal with that issue is don’t commit the felony to begin with.”

The proposal sought to undo restrictions established in July. At the time, 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 could apply for reinstated voting rights. In January, the elections office confirmed that voting rights restoration would also require getting back gun rights.

The bill would have allowed a judge to restore someone’s right to vote separate from other rights, including those regarding guns, serving on a jury, holding public office and having certain fiduciary powers. The other rights would have similarly been eligible to be restored individually, except for gun rights, which would have required restoring the other rights too, in alignment with current legal standards.

Since the July voting rights restoration policy change, 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.

Expungement offers a separate path to restore voting rights, but many felonies are ineligible. There have been 126 restorations by expungement since the July change, compared with 21 in the seven months before.

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, well before the recent changes.

Tennessee had established a process under a 2006 law for people convicted of a felony to petition for voting rights restoration. 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 in court or through a pardon by a governor or other high-level official, then complete the old process.

In Tennessee, felonies involving drugs or violence specifically remove someone’s gun rights, and action such as a governor’s pardon is needed to restore their voting rights. The gun issue also adds to an existing, complicated list of disqualifying felonies that differ depending on conviction date.

Parkinson said his bill acknowledged issues in other sections of the law similarly to some Republican proposals that passed the same committee. He said the vote was hypocritical.

“Either they have no interest in giving people their rights back, or they killed this bill so that they can come back and run it themselves next year,” Parkinson said. ”We call that ‘bill-jacking.’ But in the interim, you have people that are not going to have their rights.”

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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