NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee will soon decide the fate of Republican-backed voter legislation that won final legislative approval Monday, with some critics arguing the measure is intended to suppress efforts to register minorities and other voters.
The first-term Republican has been noncommittal about the contentious bill, which could allow voter registration groups to face fines for submitting too many incomplete signup forms and criminal penalties for submitting registration forms too late.
The legislation is being pushed by Republican Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, who said many of the voter registrations submitted on the final day of registering last year were filled out incorrectly. Critics have questioned whether the bill has anything to do with a drive last year by the Tennessee Black Voter Project that signed up thousands of people to vote in and around Memphis.
The bill easily advanced out of each GOP-dominant chamber during this year’s session despite outcries from voter advocate groups who warn it could make it harder to register voters.
On Monday, House lawmakers, with most Democrats objecting, approved last changes to the legislation adopted last week by their Senate counterparts and sent it to the governor’s desk.
Hargett said the bill was needed after noting that many of the registrations submitted on the deadline last year in Shelby County, in and around Memphis, were filled out incorrectly.
Among other steps, the legislation would establish so-called Class A misdemeanor offenses if registration groups knowingly or intentionally pay workers based on quotas; if they enroll 100 or more voters in one year and don’t complete state training; or if they enroll 100-plus voters and fail to send in completed forms by the deadline or within 10 days of registration drives. A class A misdemeanor is punishable by up to almost a year in jail and up to $2,500 in fines.
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called it one of the worst voter suppression measures to come out of a legislature this year.
“The bill would have a harmful effect on organizations that work to reach those not-yet registered, and marginalize communities who historically benefit from third-party voter protection efforts,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
She complained it would impose “burdensome preregistration requirements” and allow “draconian criminal and civil penalties.”
Under the legislation, the state also could fine groups that submit 100 or more incomplete voter registration forms that lack a name, address, date of birth, declaration of eligibility or 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 bill wouldn’t penalize voter registration groups for fraudulent forms, since state law already covers that already. The bill also would only apply to groups with paid workers, although concerns remain that largely volunteer-based groups such the League of Women Voters could be subject to it if they receive grants.
“Tennessee ranks 45th in the nation for rates of voter registration. This legislation does a disservice to would-be voters by discouraging the important outreach efforts needed to change those statistics,” said League of Women Voters of Tennessee President Marian Ott in a recent statement.
The measure also exempts companies that sometimes help their employees register, as well as spells out that voter registration groups can throw away forms with only a name or initial on them.