Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill through the state House on Monday that would fine community groups that submit incomplete voter-registration applications, an unusual move that the bill’s opponents have denounced as voter suppression.
Protesters swarmed the state capitol to speak out against the Republican-backed bill, which has drawn condemnation from voting rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers, who say it would discriminate against minority voters in a state where overall turnout is already abysmal.
“It’s clearly intended to have a chilling effect on voting efforts across Tennessee,” John Ray Clemmons, a Democratic state representative, said of the bill.
Tens of thousands of new black and Latino voters were registered in Tennessee in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, but thousands of applications in Shelby County were disqualified by state election officials for what critics say were frivolous reasons. Republicans have cited the dispute as rationale for passing the legislation.
“We want every eligible Tennessean to vote, and voter registration must be done responsibly and in a manner that does not compromise the security or integrity of elections,” said Tre Hargett, the Republican secretary of state today.
Republicans maintain a supermajority in both the state House and Senate. A spokesman for Tennessee’s House Republican Caucus said the Senate could consider its version of the bill within a matter of days.
The governor, Bill Lee, is a first-term Republican who was elected in November; he was noncommittal when asked about the legislation Monday, according to The Associated Press. A spokeswoman for Lee did not return a request for comment.
But the bill’s opponents, including Clemmons, say they expect it to be signed into law. It could then face legal challenges.
“We’re prepared to keep fighting,” said Charlane Oliver, a co-founder of the Equity Alliance, a Tennessee-based nonprofit that advocates for African-Americans to get involved in the civic process.
The Tennessee proposal is just the latest of a flurry of measures across the country that have made it harder to vote. Since 2010, 25 states — from Arizona to New Hampshire — have imposed strict photo identification requirements, cut back on early voting periods or imposed other restrictions, according to The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute based in New York.
In 2018 alone, at least a half-dozen states enacted new restrictions, the center said.
Myrna Pérez, who leads the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Project, said that states have sometimes taken steps to regulate community groups and nonprofit organizations that are seeking to register voters.
But she said she found the Tennessee legislation concerning because it would impose so many rules at once, and because there appeared to be no allegation that those driving the registration efforts had been anything other than sloppy.
“I am entirely sympathetic to the claims that are being made that this is an attempt to stifle and chill voter registration drives, and it may have the impact of doing so,” she said.
The bill would apply to people or organizations who conduct registration drives, seek to collect 100 or more voter registration forms and pay individuals to collect the forms. Officials say it would not apply to individuals or organizations who collect forms using only unpaid volunteers.
It would impose civil penalties on those who file 100 or more “deficient” voter registration applications, starting at $150 in each county where a violation occurred. Under the bill, any person or group that filed more than 500 faulty applications could be fined up to $10,000.
In addition, it would make it a Class A misdemeanor to establish a minimum number of registration forms for workers to collect.
Oliver said the bill was an attempt to place the burden of processing applications on community groups rather than on the government.
“It’s totally wrong to penalize people for doing one of the most democratic acts in this nation — registering voters,” she said.