The Tennessee state Senate on Thursday passed legislation that beefed up the civil and criminal penalties that voter registration drives could be subjected to. A version of the legislation has already been approved by the state’s House, and once the minor differences between the two versions are worked out, it will head to the desk of Gov. Bill Lee (R).
Tennessee Republicans, including Secretary of State Tre Hargett, pushed the bill after a boost in turnout in 2018 election.
Election officials in Shelby County, which contains Memphis, were sued in the lead-up to the 2018 election by a black voter registration group for the officials’ failure to process thousands of applications submitted by the organization. The election officials claimed that the forms were duplicates or missing information, and accused the group, the Tennessee Black Voter Project, of purposely dumping the applications at the last minute. The group countered that the officials were throwing out applications for minor deficiencies, such as a failure to check the form’s “Mr./Mrs./Ms.” box.
Under the new legislation, voter registration groups that pay their workers would face up to a $2,000 fine for turning in more than 100 “deficient” applications and a penalty of up to $10,000 for submitting more than 500 deficient forms.
Additionally, the bill makes it a class A misdemeanor if those groups break certain other rules surrounding voter registration drives, such as Tennessee’s prohibition on paying workers per ballot collected or its vague mandate of training for registration drives of a certain size. A class A misdemeanor brings with it up to one year in jail time and/or up to a $2,500 fine.
Voting rights activists believe the legislation is an effort to chill voter registration efforts in the state, where voter turnout currently ranks among the lowest in the country.