A federal judge signaled Monday that she is extremely skeptical of Tennessee’s new law imposing onerous requirements and stiff penalties on voter registration drives.
U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger’s harsh words for the law came in an opinion explaining why she was refusing to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the law.
“If Tennessee is concerned that voter registration drives are being done incompetently, it can engage in public education efforts without relying on a complex and punitive regulatory scheme,” she said.
Her skepticism suggests Tennessee has a rough road ahead of it when it comes to defending the law, which was passed by the state’s GOP’s legislature and signed by Gov. Bill Lee (R) earlier this year.
Republicans have claimed the new requirements and penalties were necessary after a black voter group turned in thousands of registration forms — some of them duplicates and others missing required information — before the midterm elections, allegedly overburdening election officials.
“No one in this case disputes that it is crucial to the functioning of our system of government that county election commissions have resources proportionate to the scale and importance of their responsibilities,” the judge said. “But restricting voter registration drives in order to try to preserve election commission resources is like poisoning the soil in order to have an easier harvest. There is no point in taking a step to preserve resources if, by doing so, one thoroughly compromises the reason that the resources were important in the first place.”
Under the new law, groups face thousands of dollars of fines and even prison time if they turn in a certain number of incomplete forms. The law also imposed new training requirements on the groups and mandated they include a disclaimer in their registration communications.
As the Washington Post reported earlier this year, there were indeed problems with the registration forms turned in during the midterms. However, the state’s GOP legislature did not do a formal investigation into what went wrong before rushing to pass the new penalties. Their failure to identify what problems the new restrictions were solving was a subtext of Trauger’s opinion Monday.
“[T]here is, on the current record, no basis for requiring that registration workers and volunteers receive mandatory government training prior to assisting with voter registration,” Trauger wrote. “At least at this stage, there is no reason to believe that private training has been inadequate or that voter registration organizations would refuse to use training resources made available to them unless forced.”
The state in asking her to dismiss the lawsuit had argued she lacked jurisdiction to hear the case and that the challengers failed to state a claim. In her decision Monday, the judge refused to dismiss any of the challengers claims.
Trauger said that the way the penalties for incomplete forms are structured “falls hardest not on bad actors but on organizations with the most ambitious and inclusive voter registration efforts.”
The law’s justification for the disclaimer is “even more difficult to discern”she said
“Voter registration drives are a perfectly legitimate component of the voter registration system, under Tennessee law and under the Constitution,” she said “A disclaimer that could be read to suggest otherwise would be a substantial burden without a corresponding benefit.”
Read the opinion below: