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Two Expelled Black Tennessee House Democrats Officially Win Back Their Seats

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The two Black House Democrats in Tennessee's State legislature expelled in the spring for taking part in a gun violence protest officially won reelection Thursday.

State Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson’s April expulsion drew national condemnation; President Joe Biden hosted the duo at the White House later that month and called the move “undemocratic.” The expulsion by Tennessee's Republican-led legislature briefly disenfranchised 140,000 voters in mostly Black districts.

Both candidates sailed through the primaries and were expected to win Thursday given the heavily-Democratic make-up of their districts. Jones beat Republican candidate Laura Nelson, and Pearson beat independent candidate Jeff Johnston.

The election will not significantly impact the makeup of the Tennessee legislature, where the GOP holds a supermajority in the House.

“The whole incident has lit a fire under their supporters—and they now no longer seem to represent just their districts. They have truly become a symbol of free speech in the state legislature,” Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, says of Jones and Pearson. “This entire controversy serves as a reminder to the majority that you know, there are going to be consequences when you violate the most traditional of American norms.”

Jones and Pearson had returned to the House after their expulsions when local officials reinstated them on an interim basis later in April. They both ran in this week’s special election to formally win back their positions.

After a March 27 shooting at a Nashville school left six dead, Jones and Pearson led a demonstration on the house floor with a bullhorn. Thousands of protesters had packed the state capitol to protest Tennessee gun laws. State Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white and joined the two lawmakers in the protest, also faced an expulsion vote but narrowly kept her seat. Collectively, they became known as the “Tennessee three.”

Read more: Why Other State Legislatures Might Hesitate to Copy Tennessee's Lawmaker Expulsions

Experts pointed out that state legislatures have less harsh options available to publish lawmakers who break bylaws. Those include fines, formal censure, or losing committee privileges. Republicans’ disciplinary action may have strengthened Democrats in the long-run, experts say: Pearson and Jones' campaigns have collectively raised more than $2 million.

“One of the unanticipated consequences from the Republicans expelling two of them and raising this whole brouhaha is that they made these people much more visible politically and much more secure,” says Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor emeritus of political science at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “You can’t get statewide identification as a politician that quickly, normally.”

Read more: Rep. Zooey Zephyr: My Censure Was an Attack on Democracy

Reps. Justin and Pearson aren’t the only Democratic state lawmakers to be disciplined this year. In April, Montana’s Republican-majority House banned Rep. Zooey Zephyr, the first openly transgender woman elected to Montana’s legislature, from in-person debates and voting through a censure. In March, Oklahoma Republicans censured Rep. Mauree Turner, the first openly nonbinary state legislator in U.S. history and first Muslim lawmaker in Oklahoma. But for any legislatures considering future similar measures, “All the negative publicity and money flowing in (to disciplined candidates) might be a yellow light,” says Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com