Federal Judge Blocks New Voter Registration Law Filled with Penalities
This article was originally published in Daily Memphian on September 12, 2019.
A federal judge Thursday blocked the state’s new voter registration law, a measure that could penalize large voter registration efforts.
U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Trauger of Nashville approved a preliminary injunction stopping the law from taking effect Oct. 1, just a week after rejecting a state request to dismiss a lawsuit brought by voting rights advocates.
The law, which grew out of a 2018 Shelby County drive, enacts fines and criminal charges for large voter registration drives that turn in too many incomplete applications or fail to undergo certain training.
In her initial ruling, Trauger said restricting registration drives to help local election offices is like “poisoning the soil in order to have an easier harvest.”
The judge saved her harshest criticism for Thursday’s ruling, in which she wrote: “There is simply no basis in the record for concluding that the Act will provide much benefit to Tennesseans, and even less reason to think that any benefit will come close to outweighing the harms to Tennesseans (and non-Tennesseans) who merely wish to exercise their core constitutional rights of participating in the political process by encouraging voter registration.”
House Minority Leader Karen Camper agreed with Trauger’s decision that “the harm from this law far outweighs any supposed benefit Tennessee would see” from it.
“We do not need to set additional barriers to voter registration, and pushing criminal penalties and fines to those who are trying to bring citizens into the civic arena adds a chilling effect to well-meaning voter registration efforts. It does not make our elections safer,” said Camper, a Memphis Democrat.
The legal challenge was filed on behalf of the Tennessee Conference of the NAACP, Democracy Nashville-Democratic Communities, the Equity Alliance and The Andrew Goodman Foundation, which participate in voter registrations.
Memphis Pastor Earle Fisher, an organizer of #UPTheVote901 as part of the Black Voter Project in Memphis and Shelby County, said he supports the judge’s injunction because he considers the law “egregious.”
Fisher noted the judge made a point-by-point case for the law’s unconstitutionality.
“And what I can’t seem to figure out, outside of conspiracy theories, is why the entities which should be at the vanguard of getting more people in the political process are the masterminds and the supporters of making it more difficult for people to be involved in the political process,” Fisher said.
Fisher pointed out groups such as his have far outperformed the election office in voter education and registration, even though the local government has far greater financial resources.
League of Women Voters President Marian Ott said groups can “comfortably proceed with the important work of registering voters and providing election information.”
Some groups have said the state’s law put their efforts on hold because of concerns about infractions and the potential for facing misdemeanor charges and fines.
“As importantly, we can tell community partners who have halted registration activities to proceed full steam ahead. The citizens of Tennessee and exercise of democracy are the beneficiaries today,” Ott said.
Gov. Bill Lee, who signed the bill into law in May, said Thursday he doesn’t plan to talk to Attorney General Herbert Slatery about it or ask him to appeal the judge’s decision.
“The law is meant to create free and fair elections and make sure we don’t clog the system, but that judge disagrees with that so we’ll see where it goes in court,” Lee told reporters after a Nashville event.
Shelby County Administrator of Elections Linda Phillips responded to the ruling by saying the Shelby County Election had “no part” in writing the law.
“We encourage people to register to vote, and now that online voter registration is available in Tennessee, we strongly recommend they take advantage of the ease and convenience of registering at http://www.govotetn.com. On a local level, we have taken steps to help people conduct voter registration events after which they will have few, if any, incomplete applications.”
The governor contended the filing of a large number of voter registration applications shortly before the 2018 deadline affected elections “in a negative way.”
Secretary of StateTre Hargett and Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins brought the legislation this year and passed it through the Republican-controlled Legislature. It was in response to a situation in Shelby County where the Tennessee Black Voter Project filed some 35,000 voter registration forms with the Shelby County Election Office just before the deadline in August 2018.
A public records lawsuit was filed, and a judge sided with the Black Voter Project and NAACP allowing representatives to view the processing of those forms, and they said they found irregularities in the processing of those forms.
Yet, ultimately, more than half of the forms were deemed incomplete, according to Goins. Consequently, the law is designed to target groups that pay people to run registration drives and to collect applications.
Voter advocacy groups point out Tennessee ranks 45th nationally with a 78.5% voter registration rate and 49th in voter turnout, according to Pew Charitable Trusts. Yet the new law introduces new restrictions on third-party voter registration groups.
Civil penalties of $150 to $2,000 could be levied by the State Election Commission for turning in 100 to 500 incomplete forms and a maximum of $10,000 for turning more than 500 incomplete applications.
Forms without a person’s name, residential address, birth date, declaration of eligibility or signature would be considered incomplete. The state could count all forms turned in by a person or organization in one calendar year when determining whether to assess penalties.
Criminal charges also could be filed against people for failing to turn in form within 10 days of a collection. In addition, the law regulates all communication promoting voter registration and engagement by requiring a disclaimer it is not being done in conjunction with the Secretary of State’s Office. And it bans out-of-state poll watchers who try to ensure elections are carried out properly.