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Activists Fight Back Against Tennessee Voter Registration Law

Sign directing voters to polling place with political signs in the background
By Andrew Leonatti on September 13, 2019

Every U.S. citizen over the age of 18, except for some convicted felons, has the right to vote. Complaints about voter registration groups driving other people to the polls or helping large groups of people complete the voter registration process ring hollow.

Unfortunately, some still wish to make participation in the democratic process as difficult as possible. That is the case right now in Tennessee, where activists are attempting to strike down a new law cracking down on groups that help to register voters. A federal judge ruled this week that two lawsuits against the law can move forward.

About the Law

Passed this year, the law imposes steep fines on voter registration groups for submitting 100 or more incomplete voter registration forms. That includes forms that are missing a name, address, birthday, or signature. The new law also bans out-of-state poll watchers from monitoring elections in Tennessee.

Most ominously, however, voter registration groups can face Class A misdemeanors for paying employees based on quotas of new voter registrations, enrolling 100 or more new voters without completing state training, or registering 100 or more voters and not shipping forms by the deadline or within 10 days of a registration drive.

A ‘Punitive Regulatory Scheme’

That lawmakers would choose to punish voter registration groups with the most serious misdemeanor category in Tennessee seemed alarming to U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger.  

In denying the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Trauger wrote that the bill should’ve targeted actual people engaging in fraudulent voter registration, instead of punishing groups “with the most ambitious and inclusive voter registration efforts.”

Trauger noted that a group that turned in 10,000 forms with only 1% inaccurate would face much harsher penalties than a group that turned in 100 forms with 66% inaccurate. Trauger also focused on the deadlines for submissions, arguing that the tight deadlines would effectively force groups to turn in forms they knew contained errors to avoid criminal charges, which would then open them up to fines.

Why Did This Law Even Happen?

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett said the law was necessary after a voter drive near Memphis last year by the Tennessee Black Voter Project yielded thousands of errors, which created a burden on local officials.

Leaders with that group accuse government officials of punishing the group for successfully registering more than 90,000 voters before last year’s election.

And with election fraud already illegal, it’s hard to see why there is the need for this law, especially since Tennessee ranks 44th in the country in voter registration.

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