Federal Judge Allows Challenge to TN Voter Registration Law to Proceed

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A federal judge has refused Tennessee’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit against a new law that threatens voter registration groups with civil and criminal penalties if there are problems with the applications they submit.  The Tennessean has more:

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.

Plaintiffs hailed the order:

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 in question sets up penalties for groups associated with various problems associated with their voter registration drives – penalties the judge suggested were too punitive for the intended purpose:

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. 

One particular requirement that’s being challenged involves incomplete forms:

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.

Larger groups say they are especially at risk just because of volume:

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.”

The state defends the new law, saying it’s necessary to protect the rolls and ensure against problems on Election Day:

State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins has previously said Tennessee could be the first state to [impose] 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. 

Needless to say, this is a high-profile case that will be watched in many places to see if such a law will be allowed to stand. It’s just the latest front in an ongoing fight between groups seeking to expand the voter rolls and lawmakers concerned that such efforts are creating more problems than voters. Tennessee could become one of the flashpoints for the 2020 election cycle as a result – stay tuned …

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