TN Sec Of State Pushes Bill Exposing Voter Registration Groups To Criminal Penalties

DES MOINES, IA - OCTOBER 08:  Stickers are made available to voters who cast a ballot in the midterm elections at the Polk County Election Office on October 8, 2018 in Des Moines, Iowa. Today was the first day of early voting in the state.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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Tennessee’s Republican secretary of state is backing legislation that would expose a voter registration group to severe financial and even criminal penalties for submitting too many inaccurate or incomplete voter registration forms.

Voting rights groups are raising the alarm about the bills—HB 1079 and SB 971—that are set to be heard in legislative committees in the next week.

“By penalizing civic participation groups for unintentional inaccuracies in their constituents’ completion of registration forms, the Bill tramples on cherished First Amendment rights and would undeniably result in less voter registration activity in Tennessee,” the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) wrote in a Tuesday letter urging lawmakers to vote against the legislation.

The bills would require all participants in voter registration efforts to complete a “training course” designed by the secretary of state’s office. Failure to do so would result in a criminal penalty. As would failure to submit — with a mail tracking number— a collected registration form within 10 days of the form being filled out. Financial penalties would also be imposed on individuals or civic engagement groups that submit 100 or more inaccurate or incomplete forms.

In a recent op-ed in USA Today, Secretary of State Tre Hargett wrote that these measures were needed to “enhance election security.” Hargett said that one organization in Shelby County — a majority black county home to Memphis —submitted 10,000 forms on the final day of registration, costing election administrators some $200,000 to process in a hurry. Thousands contained incomplete or incorrect information, Hargett said.

Voting rights groups countered that there are already state criminal penalties for intentionally falsifying voter registration forms, and that errors are inevitable given that registration drives lean heavily on volunteer help.

“The Bill would chill voter registration activities in the state, as civic engagement organizations struggle to invest the time and resources necessary to comply with the training requirements and find volunteers willing to assume the risk of liability,” the CLC wrote in their letter.

The group noted that a similar law in Florida was thrown out by a federal court in part because of the elaborate requirements and harsh penalties imposed on civic rights groups.

Tennessee already ranks as the worst state in the nation for voter turnout, and 40th in voter registration.

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