NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee could penalize paid voter registration groups with fines for too many incomplete signup forms and criminal penalties for submitting registration forms too late, under legislation passed Thursday by the state Senate.
The proposal advanced despite outcry from Democrats and some voting rights groups, who argue threats of civil penalties and misdemeanors could discourage people from helping others become civically engaged in a state that ranks dismally in voter participation.
The bill is backed by Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett, whose office has noted that many of the 10,000 Shelby County registrations submitted by the Tennessee Black Voter Project on the day of last year’s deadline were filled out incorrectly. For its part, the group has questioned whether the bill has anything to do with the fact that it signed up about 86,000 people to vote in last year’s election.
Another House vote is first needed on uncontroversial Senate changes.
Other states have imposed fines and criminal penalties in connection with deadlines for submitting voter registration forms and have banned basing the pay of voter registration workers on the number of people they sign up, among other voter registration standards, Hargett’s office has said.
Tennessee could be the first with civil penalties for submitting incomplete forms, state Elections Coordinator Mark Goins has said.
But Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro of Nashville questioned the measure’s tough reaction to last year’s election, likening it to taking “a bazooka to a fly.”
The legislation creates class A misdemeanors if groups knowingly or intentionally pay workers based on quotas; if they enroll 100 or more voters and don’t complete state training; or if they enroll 100-plus voters and fail to ship completed forms by the deadline or within 10 days of registration drives. A class A misdemeanor is punishable by up to almost a year in jail and up to $2,500 in fines.
The state could also fine groups that submit 100 or more incomplete voter registration forms that lack a name, address, date of birth, declaration of eligibility or signature. Penalties can reach $10,000 per county where violations occur if more than 500 incomplete forms are submitted. The bill also outlaws out-of-state poll watchers.
Republican Gov. Bill Lee has been noncommittal when asked about the legislation, but the GOP-supermajority Legislature only would need another set of majority votes to override a prospective veto.
After last week’s House passage, Republican House Speaker Glen Casada contended on Twitter that outside groups tried “to flood the ballot box with fraudulent votes” last year, which he called an attempt to keep Republican Marsha Blackburn from securing a U.S. Senate seat. He said the bill was in response to that. Blackburn won handily.
Goins has said many of the Shelby registrations submitted by the Tennessee Black Voter Project included incorrect, incomplete or duplicate information; or contained the names of ineligible felons and deceased residents. The scenario erupted in a testy lawsuit in the weeks before Election Day and consumed so much attention that it put at risk legally eligible voters who were trying to register.
The Shelby registration form issues cost the state more than $200,000, while similar issues in Nashville’s Davidson County cost about $35,000, Hargett has said.
“The taxpayers are currently being responsible for someone else going out there and doing sloppy work,” Goins said last week. “And so, this is just a way to get some restitution.”
The latest version wouldn’t penalize voter registration groups for fraudulent forms, since state law already covers those. The bill was also amended to apply only to groups with paid workers, although concerns remain that largely volunteer-based groups like the League of Women Voters could be subject to it if they receive grants.
It was adjusted to try to exempt companies that sometimes help their employees register, though Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville, the lone Republican “no” vote Thursday, said the amendment didn’t go far enough to protect employers.
Additionally, the bill was changed to spell out that voter registration groups can throw away forms with only a name or initial on them.