Lawsuit contends TN election officials wrongfully failing to restore felon voting rights

A lawsuit contends that Tennessee election officials are ignoring court orders to restore voting rights for former felons, reports The Huffington Post.

Nashville-area attorney Elizabeth R. McClellan filed the suit in March against the State Election Commission and its elections coordinator, Mark Goins, on behalf of one former felon, Robert O’Neal, and others who may have been affected by the discord between the courts and the commission. McClellan filed the suit as class-action litigation, although a judge has not yet certified it as such.

…Tennessee is one of just 11 states that permanently disenfranchise citizens from voting. People in the state convicted of murder, treason, rape, voter fraud or sexual offenses can’t petition to have their voting rights restored once they finish their sentence and parole. Any other convicted felons who have paid restitution and outstanding child support may apply to the state Election Commission to have their voting rights restored. Alternatively, they may ask a circuit court judge to hear their case to have their full citizenship rights restored, including voting rights. The state may object on any grounds relevant to character during the court proceedings.

In a 2014 report, the Tennessee Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights estimated that more than 160,000 former felons are currently disenfranchised in the state, with African-Americans disproportionately affected by the state’s voting rights ban.

McClellan’s suit argues that Goins is incorrectly interpreting state law to subvert a judicial order dictating that O’Neal’s citizenship rights be restored.

“They’re holding his right to vote hostage,” she told The Huffington Post. “They seem to believe that they have every right to not enforce the order that my client and similarly situated people like him obtained through the Tennessee judicial citizenship rights statute because those orders are not lawful.”

“In their opinion, the sole person who gets to decide who is eligible to have their voting rights restored is the state coordinator of elections and his office, with no due process, no oversight, no administrative hearing and no appeal,” she continued. “They’re simply allowed to receive orders and conduct their own special investigation, and if they think [the restoration applicants] don’t pass muster, they simply refuse to enforce [the orders].”

The suit asks for mandatory enforcement of orders like the one to restore O’Neal’s rights. It also calls for a determination as to whether the Election Commission has the power to override court orders. McClellan has filed a motion for a default judgment in favor of her case, while the state attorney general’s office has filed a motion to dismiss the suit. A hearing will be held May 22 on the motion to dismiss.

…Goins, who formerly served in the state legislature and now represents Tennessee on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s Standards Board, said in 2009 that while the restoration of voting rights may take some time, “it’s not a complicated process.” His office said it could not comment on ongoing litigation.