Tennessee Lawmakers Repeal Discriminatory Restrictions on Voter Registration Drives Following Federal Lawsuit

Repeal Allows Civic Engagement Organizations to Continue to Register Eligible Tennesseans to Vote Without Fear of Draconian Civil or Criminal Penalties But Organizations Still Remain Cautious Given Enactment of New Law

Following a preliminary injunction order issued by a federal district court judge in September 2019 which blocked enforcement, Tennessee legislators repealed a previously draconian law passed in May 2019. The law placed civil and criminal penalties on community groups, which register prospective voters at voter registration drives throughout the state.

In May 2019, on the day the law was signed, The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, pro bono law firm Hogan Lovells US LLP, Bromberg Law LLC, and Memphis-based firm Burch, Porter, & Johnson PLLC challenged the law in this lawsuit, brought on behalf of Tennessee community groups and civic engagement organizations.

Plaintiffs are the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP, Democracy Nashville-Democratic Communities, The Equity Alliance, and The Andrew Goodman Foundation.

“We’re glad that our legal action propelled Tennessee lawmakers to do the right thing and eliminate restrictions previously put in place by the State’s anti-democratic voter registration law that blatantly attempted to suppress the votes of students and communities of color,” said Alexandria Harris, executive director of The Andrew Goodman Foundation. “Voting is a fundamental right that is foundational to our democracy and voter registration is a democratic freedom that has always played a crucial role in ensuring that all Americans have access to this constitutional right. We hope this decision emboldens more young people to get registered, vote, and be heard.”

“The repeal of this law is a recognition that the legislature had overstepped constitutional boundaries in its attempt to unnecessarily restrict voter registration activities,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“Our clients collectively registered tens of thousands of new voters—many of them racial minorities—in advance of the 2018 elections and planned similar voter registration drives in future elections. The court’s injunction—and now the state’s repeal—of the unconstitutional provisions of the law ensure that voting rights organizations in Tennessee are able to continue their critical work,” said Ira Feinberg, senior counsel at Hogan Lovells US LLP. Feinberg continued, “This outcome sends a clear message to Tennessee and other states that these types of restrictive laws have no place in our democracy.”

Plaintiffs had the following reactions to the repeal:

“We fought a worthy fight and claimed victory against the state’s most egregious provisions in the law to suppress voters. However, at a time when our state should be passing laws that improve our democracy and keep us safe from COVID-19, the Tennessee legislature continues to impose unnecessary restrictions on voters wanting to enter the political process,” said Charlane Oliver, executive director of The Equity Alliance.

“We are happy that our lawsuit caused the legislature to repeal the old law and rethink their position on the previous bill. But we will closely be monitoring how state and county officials apply this new law and how it affects our community,” said Gloria Sweet-Love, president of the State Conference of the Tennessee NAACP.

Sekou Franklin, co-director of Democracy Nashville-Democratic Communities said, “the legislature’s recent decision to overturn the previous law, which was punitive and infringed on longstanding voter protections, is a positive move. But now that the new law has passed, county elections commissions must encourage voter access and reject any attempts to implement punitive measures that will harm voters.”

About The Andrew Goodman Foundation 

The Andrew Goodman Foundation’s mission is to make young voices and votes a powerful force in democracy by training the next generation of leaders, engaging young voters, and challenging restrictive voter suppression laws. The Foundation’s Vote Everywhere program partners with America’s colleges and universities to provide resources, visibility, and mentoring to a national network of student leaders who involve their peers in participatory democracy through long-term voter engagement, public policy, and social justice initiatives. The organization is named after Andrew Goodman, a 20-year old Freedom Summer volunteer, and champion of equality and voting rights who was murdered by the KKK in 1964 while registering African Americans to vote in Mississippi.