Black Voter Group Goes To Court Over Voter Registration Issue In Memphis

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The Tennessee Black Voter Project is turning to a state court to fix what it says are issues in how Shelby County — which includes Memphis — is handling thousand of voter registration forms the group turned in ahead of November’s election.

The county election commission has not done enough to inform voters whose registrations weren’t completed that they can rectify the missing information issues at their polling place on Election Day, the Tennessee Black Voter Project, joined by the NAACP, alleged in documents filed in the lawsuit.

In response, the county election commission is claiming that the Tennessee Black Voter Project is to blame for the incomplete registration forms and is accusing the group of waiting until the last minute to submit the registration forms to purposely cause chaos.

The disagreement comes down to whether voters with incomplete registration forms should be able to, on Election Day, fix those deficiencies at their polling place and cast a regular ballot once they have. A hearing in Shelby County’s Chancery Court is scheduled for Thursday at 11 a.m. CT.

The legal fight comes as the U.S. Senate race in Tennessee, between Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) and former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), is among the most closely watched in the nation. Tennessee’s African-American vote, which would is key to Democrats’ success in the state,  is largely concentrated in the Memphis area.

The county is currently letting those with deficient registrations who seek to vote early call a help desk while at the early voting site. Once it is confirmed they had submitted a registration form by the deadline and the missing information is provided, they are allowed to cast a regular ballot.  But the commission says for logistical reasons, that system is not possible on Election Day, so those with incomplete registrations will have to vote provisionally instead.

“Requiring voters to vote provisionally, by its nature, subjects them to a real and substantial risk of disenfranchisement if their provisional ballots are ultimately not counted—for example, due to administrative error or because it was cast in the wrong precinct,” the Tennessee Black Voter Project said in its latest court filings, which also argued that the relevant state law “makes no mention of provisional ballots.”

The commission’s elections administrator, Linda Phillips, when asked about that legality of requiring these voters to vote provisionally on Election Day, said in an emailed statement to TPM, “[T]hat’s the only way it can be done.”

The commission estimates that, of the 10,000 registration forms it says the group submitted in the days leading up to and on the deadline, that 55 percent have not been completed, including those that were duplicates or those rejected because of felony convictions, in addition to the forms missing information.

“It certainly seems as though the forms were held back until the last minute in
an effort to create problems,” Phillips said. “Some of the forms were dated as far back as August.”

The group said in court filings it submitted the registration forms on a rolling basis.

The Tennessee Black Voter Project took issue specifically with the registration forms deemed incomplete because the “Mr./Mrs./Ms” box was not checked. The election commission said state law requires gender to be used when identifying voters at the polling place, and that it was the group’s fault for declining to use the state-issued voter registration form used by the commission, which “makes clear” the gender requirement, according to a commission press release.

“Petitioners are aware of no Tennessee law that conditions one’s eligibility for the right to vote on the basis of gender or salutation,” Tennessee Black Voter Project said in its filings.

In addition to asking the court to require that the affected voters be allowed to cast regular ballots, the group is also seeking that the election commission notify those who submitted the incomplete registration forms that they have the option of correcting the deficiency at their polling place and then voting regularly there, including on Election Day.

Read the Tennessee Black Voter Project’s legal petition below:

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