ACLU Disappointed With Federal Court Decision Upholding Tennessee's Disenfranchisement Law

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
September 23, 2008 12:00 am

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NASHVILLE – A federal court today rejected a challenge to a Tennessee law that made the restoration of voting rights for people convicted of felonies contingent on the payment of all outstanding legal financial obligations (LFOs), namely restitution and child support fees. The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Tennessee, which brought the case on behalf of four individuals who have completed their terms of imprisonment, parole and probation for their offenses, expressed disappointment with the decision.

“Today’s decision ignores the impact of this law on many citizens of Tennessee whose voting rights are being violated. Requiring people with criminal convictions to pay a fee before getting back their right to vote discriminates against poor people and does not promote rehabilitation,” said Nancy Abudu, staff counsel with the ACLU Voting Rights Project. “This modern-day poll tax locks citizens out of the democratic process and it is deeply disappointing that the court did not recognize that.”

Requiring some individuals to bear an undue financial burden before voting is tantamount to a poll tax in violation of the Twenty-fourth Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The ACLU also charged that the Tennessee law violates the ex post facto and due process clauses in the federal and state constitutions. The judge did not rule on the due process claim.

The ACLU’s legal action, filed against state and county officials, challenges a 2006 law that changed the process by which individuals with criminal convictions may seek the restoration of their voting rights. According to the law, “a person shall not be eligible to apply for a voter registration card and have the right of suffrage restored unless such person has paid all restitution to the victim or victims of the offense ordered by the court as part of the sentence… [and] unless such person is current in all child support obligations.”

“We are disappointed in this decision because the right to vote should not be contingent on an individual’s financial status. Charging low-income parents a fee to exercise their constitutional right to vote is not acceptable,” said Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “We should be seeking ways to encourage more people to vote, not creating more barriers designed to deny citizens their constitutional voting rights.”

Attorneys on the case are Abudu, Laughlin McDonald and Neil Bradley of the national ACLU Voting Rights Project and Tricia Herzfeld of the ACLU of Tennessee.

More information on the work of the ACLU Voting Rights Project is available at:

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