Tennessee Made It Harder to Register Voters. Activists Consider What’s Next.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Charlane Oliver didn’t expect her efforts to register thousands of black and brown Tennesseans to vote would lead to one of the most restrictive voter registration laws in the country.
But less than a year after a coalition of groups, led by the nonprofit Tennessee Black Voter Project, conducted a statewide voter registration drive that accumulated 91,000 applications, activists like her face a daunting obstacle: A new state law that seeks to curb mass voter registration efforts by imposing criminal and financial penalties for turning in error-filled forms or failing to register with the state and undergo training.
The new Tennessee law has nonprofits and voting rights activists scrambling ahead of the 2020 presidential election, as they attempt to understand new regulations that could lead to thousands of dollars in fines and even jail time.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult to get people registered to vote,” said Oliver, a co-founder and board president of the Equity Alliance, a nonprofit that partnered with the Tennessee Black Voter Project to register tens of thousands of voters outside churches, laundromats and grocery stores.
“That’s voter suppression,” Oliver added, as her two-month-old son Micah quietly slept beside her inside a North Nashville soul food restaurant. “It is absolutely designed to hurt our community and hurt our efforts to register people.”
The new law, which goes into effect Oct. 1, came after a massive influx of voter registration applications before the 2018 midterm elections left local election officials struggling to add new voters to the rolls and to reach out to residents who submitted incomplete or incorrect personal information. Some of those officials suspected voter fraud, alleging that canvassers filled in false information on forms and registered felons to vote to meet supposed quotas.
Republican legislators, backed by some of those officials, passed the new law in April. Just one Republican voted against it. No Democrats voted for the bill.
Jeff Roberts, the elections administrator for Davidson County, which includes Nashville, said the new law is not designed to suppress voting. If registrations are incomplete, he said, residents risk having to fill out a provisional ballot or be turned away on Election Day. Instead, the goal is to ensure there are more accurate applications.
“Our biggest challenge is trying to protect the voter,” Roberts said. “Bottom line, because we’re in the business of registering people to vote.”
But with its new training requirements and potential criminal penalties, the Tennessee law could hurt voter registration drives on college campuses, said Erika Burnett, the regional program manager with the nonprofit Andrew Goodman Foundation, which gives stipends to “student ambassadors” at 13 schools across the South for on-campus civic engagement.
Based in Nashville, Burnett already has seen campus leaders at the historically black Tennessee State University nervous about expanding registration efforts.
“The disenfranchisement is real,” she said.
National voter registration organizers also are scared to conduct new registration drives at Tennessee music festivals such as Bonnaroo because of penalties associated with the new state law, according to a June report from the Tennessean. Groups like the national nonprofit HeadCount have been registering new voters at the Manchester, Tennessee-based event since 2004.
These concerns have been echoed by Democrats and voting rights activists nationwide as some Republican state lawmakers continue to tighten election laws, saying they are worried about voter fraud. The fight over ballot access has ramped up as the 2020 presidential election approaches.