NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Facing the possibility of fines for paperwork errors, organizers of voter registration drives and civil rights advocates are furious over a new Tennessee law that they said discourages them from getting minorities and college students to take part in American democracy.
They call the new law, likely the first in the country to fine groups for too many incomplete registration forms, an affront to one of the most basic civil rights enjoyed by Americans. But some also say they won’t let it turn them around.
“I just can’t see us saying, ‘Well, we’re not going to any longer register people to vote,’” said Terri Freeman, president of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. “The people who are chronicled on the walls of the museum — many of them died for people to have that right. And I think it’s very unfortunate that Tennessee would take a stand to penalize nonprofit organizations that are trying to encourage people to participate in what is not only their civic right, but civic duty.”
The museum, which incorporates the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated into its exhibits, will continue helping people sign up on its free Tennessee resident Mondays and during events, Freeman said. The law says only paid groups could face penalties, but “interpretation is everything,” Freeman added.
The law signed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday threatens fines for 100 or more incomplete registration forms in a year and criminal penalties for other infractions.
A federal lawsuit filed against the state immediately after the bill’s signing said it could force four voter registration groups to scale back or shut down those services in the state.
The NAACP of Tennessee and three others made that prediction in their federal lawsuit, arguing the new law is so poorly spelled out that it “creates an unacceptable risk that they will be subject to arbitrary and discriminatory law enforcement.”
Voting rights advocates and Democrats argued the law would suppress minorities and other voters, but their outcry failed to stop the GOP-dominated Legislature from passing the bill. Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett argued that tacking on penalties would be crucial for election security.
The misdemeanors 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.
Since 2010, 25 states have passed voting restrictions, according to The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU’s School of Law. Experts say the pace accelerated in some states after a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision set aside a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that enabled the federal government to require certain states and counties with a history of discrimination to submit election changes for approval.
Voting rights groups say the ruling has resulted in a wave of voter suppression in the last two federal election cycles and have been calling on Congress to fix the federal law and restore voting protections. Advocates for laws such as requiring photo ID at polling places say they are needed to guard against voter fraud and ensure public confidence in elections.
More than 122 million people voted in the 2018 elections, the highest in a midterm election year since 1978, according to the Pew Research Center. Tennessee was no exception, with a 54 percent turnout, which neared the 61.9 percent turnout from the 2016 presidential cycle.
The state saw about 259,500 new voter signups in the six months leading to December 2018, including 34,500 in Democratic metro Nashville and 27,100 in Memphis-centered Shelby County.
Still, the state remains near the bottom in voter participation marks.
The bill isn’t a quick-trigger reaction to a particularly close 2018 election — Republicans easily won open races for U.S. Senate and governor, despite facing the Democrats’ most formidable candidates in years. Instead, Hargett’s office had noted 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.
Each of the four groups in the legal challenge has a mix of paid and unpaid workers, and none are sure how the law that only targets paid signup drive efforts would impact them, the lawsuit says. Additionally, they say there’s no evidence that paid voter registration workers are more prone to commit fraud than unpaid ones.
The Equity Alliance, one of the plaintiffs, is planning a registration push before the law takes effect in October in the districts of lawmakers who backed the bill, said group co-founder and board member Charlane Oliver.
“We are more than ever motivated,” Oliver said.
Maureen Organ, a volunteer who is about to restart League of Women Voters registration drives for Nashville’s August elections, said she’s not worried. Neither are the volunteers she works alongside.
“They think the best revenge for the legislation is to register as many people as possible, and doing it with the same accuracy we’ve been doing it all along,” Organ said.