Lawsuits against Tennessee Voter Registration Law Can Move forward, Federal Judge Rules
This article was originally published in Tennessean on September 9, 2019.
A “punitive regulatory scheme.”
That’s how a federal judge described a bill passed this year by the Tennessee legislature, which created a series of new mandates for voter registration groups in the state and the threat of civil and criminal penalties if they don’t comply.
Federal Judge Aleta Trauger issued a ruling Monday that denies the state’s motion to dismiss two lawsuits filed by several civil rights and voter registration organizations, which came promptly after Gov. Bill Lee signed the bill into law.
The plaintiffs argue the law will hinder voter registration in Tennessee, especially among minority groups.
The lawsuits, which name Secretary of State Tre Hargett, State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins and members of the State Elections Commission as defendants, are seeking declaratory judgment and an injunction prohibiting the law from taking effect.
A statement released by The Equity Alliance, of the plaintiffs that filed suit, says Trauger’s ruling affirms the argument they’ve made all along.
“If additional training is needed, the state should have produced new instructions for groups that believe in the power of voter registration,” said Charlane Oliver, president and co-founder of The Equity Alliance. “The state should be investing its resources in improving our low voter participation rates instead of suppressing voters.
The new law allows the state to charge voter registration groups with Class A misdemeanors if they 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.
But Trauger’s order suggests Tennessee’s law is too far reaching, and that the state can engage the public on effectively running voter registration drives “without relying on a complex and punitive regulatory scheme.”
“If (the state) is concerned that the drives are being done fraudulently—for example, by a person or organization collecting forms and never turning them in—it can punish the fraud rather than subjecting everyone else to an intrusive prophylactic scheme that true bad actors would likely evade regardless,” Trauger’s order says.
Groups can also face fines if they submit 100 or more incomplete voter registration forms in a year 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.
By requiring voter registration groups to ship completed forms to the state within 10 days of registration drives or risk criminal charges, while also threatening thousands of dollars in penalties if too many of those forms are incomplete, the current law puts the plaintiffs “in an unnecessary double bind,” the order says.
While it’s not unreasonable to require voter registration groups to turn in those applications in a timely manner, the 10-day mandate effectively forces those groups to turn in applications they know are incomplete, Trauger wrote.
“The act, therefore, punishes a person or organization for doing too much of something that it requires them to do,” the order says.
Finally, the order suggests the more effective an organization is at registering people to vote, the more burdensome the law is.
The law doesn’t penalize groups for the rate of incomplete forms they turn in — only if they turn in more than 500 incomplete forms.
In other words, Trauger wrote, if an organization turns in 10,000 applications and 1% are incomplete, they could be penalized under the law, even if they made all reasonable efforts to complete them. If an organization turns in 150 applications and 66% are incomplete, they don’t face any penalties.
“The act falls hardest not on bad actors but on organizations with the most ambitious and inclusive voter registration efforts,” Trauger wrote. “The state’s interest in drives being performed competently does not justify such a regime.”
About Tennessee’s voter registration law
State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins has previously said Tennessee could be the first state to lob such penalties for submitting incomplete forms.
Tennessee ranks 44th nationwide in voter registration, but saw a surge in voter registration during the 2018 midterm elections.
The voter registration bill came during this year’s legislative session, after Hargett said he noted many of the 10,000 registrations submitted near Memphis last year by the Tennessee Black Voter Project on the last day for registering were not filled out correctly.
Hargett, who backed the bill, has said the law was needed after the incident with thousands of incomplete registration forms created difficulties for local officials.
The bill specifically required groups organizing voter registration drives to undergo training and forces them to hand in completed documents in a timely manner.
Critics have 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.