Challenge to Tennessee Voter Registration Law Survives Dismissal Motion

This article was originally published in Courthouse News Service on September 9, 2019.

(CN) – The Andrew Goodman Foundation strives to make young people’s votes a “powerful force in democracy,” but a Tennessee law regulating some voter registration drives, which is set to take effect in a few weeks, would change the way the organization encourages civic action on college campuses in the state.

Sponsored by Republican State Senator Ed Jackson and passed by the GOP-dominated Tennessee General Assembly in April, SB 0971 imposes regulations on voting drives that sign-up more than 100 voters and compensate some of the collectors of the registration applications.

Some lawmakers heralded it as an effort to protect would-be voters from drives motivated by profit and obtaining voter data.

The Andrew Goodman Foundation quickly joined a suit challenging the law, arguing that part of it amounts to government-compelled speech, because voter registration drives would have to include a disclaimer in their communications that their statements are made by a political organization and not the Tennessee Secretary of State.

That provision would hobble the foundation’s efforts to use texting – which its managing director, Maxim Thorne, says is the most effective way of turning out the youth vote to the polls.

“We should not have to make statements on behalf of the Tennessee State Department,” Thorne said. “This is clearly an effort to cripple our ability, or everyone’s ability, to use texting as a mode of getting people out to vote.”

On Monday, a federal judge gave the Andrew Goodman Foundation and three other organizations engaged in registering Tennessee voters an early win in the lawsuit and denied the Tennessee Secretary of State’s motion to dismiss the case.

U.S. District Judge Aleta Tauger said in her 34-page ruling that, at this point in the lawsuit, the organizations “have pleaded a plausible claim” that Tennessee did not give a compelling reason to direct them to issue disclaimers while engaging in political speech.

“By making it riskier and more difficult to engage in voter registration activities and communications, the Act has, the plaintiffs allege, imposed meaningful limitations on the plaintiff organizations’ rights to engage in political speech and association related to elections. With regard to the plaintiffs’ alleged First Amendment harms, moreover, it is particularly unnecessary to wait and see how the Act will be enforced,” Tauger wrote.

The judge’s decision has left plaintiffs in the case optimistic that the judge will issue a preliminary injunction halting the implementation of the law.

The law and the suit comes at a time when Tennessee’s voter registration rate is one of the lowest in the country. According to the Pew Charitable Trust, only 78.57% of eligible voters in Tennessee are registered.

That rate is even lower among eligible voters between 18 and 29 and people of color.

Just before the legislature took up this bill, the 2018 midterm election saw a boost in youth and minority voter turnout. A voting drive in Tennessee inundated counties with 91,000 new black voters. Young voter turnout more than doubled in 2018 compared to the 2014 midterm election, according to Thorne.

The managing director for the organization started by the parents of Andrew Goodman – who was killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964 for registering black voters – added the law has “clear racial overtones,” given its timing.

Among the law’s provisions, voting drives need to register with Coordinator of Elections, collectors must undergo training on election law and the submission of incomplete voting registration applications could land a group with fines up to $10,000.

“This law is meant to intimidate, to frighten, to threaten young people, young people of color and people interested in Democracy … We know where this could lead,” Thorne said. “Andy died because of this kind of environment.”

The Equity Alliance, a plaintiff in the suit, said the judge’s decision affirms what it has been saying about the law, but recognized that there is a long legal battle still ahead.

“The state should be investing its resources in improving our low voter participation rates instead of suppressing voters,” Charlane Oliver, president of The Equity Alliance, said in a statement. “Tennesseans do not want or need a burdensome law that slaps well-meaning groups like The Equity Alliance with irrational $10,000 fines or puts our organizers in jail for making mistakes on forms.”

Meanwhile, Mark Goins, Tennessee’s coordinator of elections – who was named as a defendant in the suit – said his office is continuing preparations to implement the law which is still scheduled to take effect Oct. 1.

Goins could not comment on the merits of the lawsuit.

“We will continue to prepare and be ready to implement the law unless a judge tells us otherwise,” Goins said. “At this point, the judge has not said she’s issuing an injunction. She just said that she refused to dismiss the lawsuit, which means we get a hearing on the injunction.”