In Tennessee, a new voter registration law backed by GOP legislators will impose potential civil and criminal penalties on organizations that register voters.
Signed by Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Lee on May 2, HB1079/SB971 requires groups with more than 100 registrants to complete voter registration training and provide drive organizers’ contact information to county election coordinators. It also requires all voter registration drives to submit all forms within ten days of being collected. And it allows for those who submit incomplete or incorrect data to be fined up to $10,000.
“A fear I have is that, because of the penalty, there will be a reverse incentive for groups to go out and get people registered,” says Marian Ott, president of the Tennessee League of Women Voters.
Before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965, state and local officials throughout the South used voter suppression tactics to prevent African Americans from voting.
Fifty-four years later, lawmakers in Republican-dominated states continue to use similar tactics to suppress the votes of people of color. Their tactics include restricting early voting, closing polling places, imposing strict ID laws and registration obstacles, and purging voter rolls.
Since 2010, twenty-five states have implemented restrictions that make voting more difficult, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Most of these restrictions have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 ruled that there was no longer any need to prevent states with a history of discrimination from altering their voting rules without federal approval.
In Georgia, election leaders closed 214 polling stations over the years and purged voter rolls by implementing a “use it or lose it” policy. In a single day in July 2017, more than half a million people were removed from Georgia’s voter rolls—not because they moved or died, but because they decided not to vote in previous elections.
With Nashville’s election for mayor and city council coming up in August, Ott says the law is already having a “chilling effect” on voting rights groups’ work on registering voters in underrepresented communities: “We’ve already had people call asking if they will be in trouble for hosting voter drives.”
The new law creates a class A misdemeanor if groups knowingly or intentionally pay workers based on quotas or fail to meet the requirements outlined in the bill. Class A misdemeanors are punishable by up to almost a year in jail.
Republican lawmakers and Lee say the law is designed to protect election integrity and allow for safe and fair elections. As the governor put it, “I think we want to provide for fair, for genuine, for elections with integrity, and that’s why I signed the bill.”
The law was also championed by Tre Hargett, Tennessee’s Secretary of State. Hargett expressed his support for the bill in an op-ed in The Tennessean, writing that the law is needed due to last-minute surges in voter registration applications being filed to election officials.
In fact, the surge in voter registrations submitted in and around Memphis last year was spearheaded by a coalition of advocacy groups led by the Tennessee Black Voter Project, in alliance with the Equity Alliance and the NAACP of Memphis. The coalition of advocacy groups work to engage communities of color and disenfranchised communities in the civic process.
Critics question if the surge in voter turnout from people of color explains why Republican lawmakers are cracking down on voter registration groups.
Tequila Johnson, co-founder of the Equity Alliance and statewide manager for the Tennessee Black Voter Project, estimates the coalitions efforts led to nearly 90,000 people of color registering to vote.
“Our goal was to get 35,000 people registered and ended up with 90,000,” says Johnson. “We did a lot of outreach with the LGBT community and in rural areas as well as mobilizing in Knoxville, Chattanooga and Nashville.”
TIRCC Votes, a sister 501c(4) of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, works to ensure first and second generation immigrant voters are getting to the polls and exercising their right to vote.
Historically, Tennessee has seen low voter turnout in previous elections—just 28.5 percent in the 2014 midterms, the lowest rate in the nation according to an analysis by the PEW Charitable Trust. But voter turnout by non-white voters increased by up to 13 points between the 2014 and 2018 midterms, according to Census Bureau data.
Moreover, in the 2018 midterm election, TIRRC Votes found that 7,834 immigrants cast a ballot for the first time. Moreover, immigrant voters in Tennessee turned out to the polls in unprecedented numbers, up 35 percent from the previous midterm election.
These gains were due to the work of organizations like the League of Women Voters, TIRRC Votes, and the Tennessee Black Voter Project that work to register voters in underrepresented communities.
Critics question if the surge in voter turnout from people of color explains why Republican lawmakers are so eager to crack down on voter registration groups.
“This legislation is a direct attack on underrepresented communities,” says Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, policy director at TIRRC Votes. “It is shameful that instead of building on our progress, our legislature is attempting to prevent minority groups and communities of color from getting to the polls.”
Ott agrees. “Voter registration drives are critical in our efforts of making sure everyone has a voice,” she says. “Voter registration surges like what Tennessee saw in 2018 should be celebrated, not penalized.”
On the same day in May that Governor Lee signed the voter registration bill into law, civil rights groups filed lawsuits against it. The suit by Tennessee’s League of Women Voters argues that the law violates freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, and the fundamental right to vote under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Sophia Lakin, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, and representatives of several other groups sent a notice letter to the State of Tennessee citing violations of the National Voter Registration Act. Regarding the state’s actions, Lakin stated:
“Tennessee politicians are punishing civic organizations that advocate for people’s right to participate in the political process and assist Tennesseans in registering to vote. With its dismal voter registration rates, Tennessee needs these groups on the ground. What politicians should be doing is making sure that local election officials have the adequate resources to do their jobs. Silencing civic groups’ voices is not the solution.”
Representatives from the Equity Alliance echo this concern, saying the law violates an organization’s Constitutional right to organize voters and empower them to engage in the civic process.
Says Brandon Puttbrese, a consultant with the group, “The right to organize is clearly stated in the First Amendment and we believe this law infringes on that.”