Groups seek to block Tennessee voter signup penalties law

Local Elections

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Several voter registration organizations are asking a judge to stop Tennessee’s new restrictions for signing up voters from taking effect in October, saying the law has already curtailed their ability to enroll voters in communities of color and other historically disenfranchised groups.

In a Nashville federal court filing Friday, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law wrote that Tennessee’s new law has left the groups that filed the lawsuit with the choice of either halting or significantly scaling back voter registration efforts ahead of the 2020 elections because of the financial risks and exposure to possible criminal prosecution.

The law is likely the first nationally to fine groups for too many incomplete registration forms. It also includes misdemeanor charges for other intentional infractions of new rules. Only paid groups could be penalized under the law, though the legal filing contends the distinction is unclear due to the groups’ use of grant money and stipends for workers in certain cases.

The lawsuit was filed in May on behalf of the NAACP state conference, The Equity Alliance, The Andrew Goodman Foundation and Democracy Nashville-Democratic Communities, which in particular are dedicated to expanding voting rights for African-Americans, other minorities and students. It alleges infringement on First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Another federal challenge of the law by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups is also pending.

“Not only does this law create hurdles that prevent us from helping our community register to vote, it intimidates our members so that they do not want to become officers of the TN NAACP or the local units because they fear criminal penalties and civil fines if they are required to carry out a civic engagement plan that includes voter registration, which they all do,” wrote Gloria Jean Sweet-Love, Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP president, in an accompanying filing.

Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett has argued adding penalties will bolster election security. His office declined to comment on the pending litigation.

In pushing for the bill, Hargett’s office had noted that many of the 10,000 registrations submitted in and around Memphis last year by the Tennessee Black Voter Project on the last day for registering were filled out incorrectly.

Under the new law, the state can 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 law also outlaws out-of-state poll watchers.

The misdemeanor penalties could kick in if groups intentionally turn in forms after new deadlines, pay people based on quotas, fail to fill out state registration, don’t undergo training, and more.

A class A misdemeanor is punishable by up to almost a year in jail and up to $2,500 in fines.

Some of the groups that sued wrote that they could need a compliance officer to help them navigate the law, but don’t have the money to pay for it.

Additionally, some worried that their funding could be in jeopardy. Democracy Nashville-Democratic Communities may not pursue any funding that requires registering voters due to the law, according to a court filing. And The Equity Alliance worries grants might become harder to get, despite Tennessee’s dismal rankings in voter participation metrics.

“Another major concern is that, in light of the new law, national organizations that have been the source of much of our funding may be hesitant to fund Tennessee voter registration efforts,” Charlane Oliver, co-founder and board president of The Equity Alliance, wrote in an accompanying filing. “In light of the risk of criminal and civil penalties, they may think it will be less risky to dedicate funding elsewhere.”

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