NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s new restrictions for registering voters aren’t scheduled to face trial until February 2021, likely keeping the penalties blocked through the 2020 elections.
But organizers that have sued over the law fear it has already curtailed their ability to enroll voters in communities of color and other historically disenfranchised groups.
This week, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger scheduled the combined trial for two challenges of the law that fines groups with paid workers for submitting too many incomplete registration forms , considered a first among states.
It also criminalizes intentional infractions of other new rules with misdemeanor charges.
In September, Trauger halted the law from taking effect on Oct. 1 while it’s being challenged in court by voter registration groups. The state hasn’t appealed that preliminary injunction.
Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett has argued that adding the penalties will bolster election security.
Arguing for the law, Hargett’s office has pointed out that many of the 10,000 registrations submitted in and around Memphis last year by the Tennessee Black Voter Project on the last day for registering were filled out incorrectly.
Hargett’s office declined to comment on the impact of the 2021 trial date.
Under the new law, the state can fine groups if they submit 100 or more voter registration forms within a calendar year that lack a complete name, address, date of birth, declaration of eligibility and signature. Penalties can reach $10,000 per county where violations occur if more than 500 incomplete forms are submitted. The bill also outlaws out-of-state poll watchers.
The misdemeanor penalties could kick in if groups intentionally turn in forms after new deadlines, pay people based on quotas, fail to fill out state registration, don’t undergo training, and more.
Only paid groups could be penalized under the law, though the groups’ legal filings contend the distinction is murky due to their use of grant money and stipends for workers in certain cases.
The judge has issued scathing criticisms of the law, saying “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.”
One of the legal groups representing voter registration outfits said there’s still work to be done to assure people they don’t have to change how they register voters because the law is currently blocked.
“We are cleaning up the state’s mess by providing clarity to the public that the state’s draconian law for now is null and void,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Schools, churches, grassroots organizations and others should feel free to continue registering people across the state.”