Tennessee Sued Over Crackdown on Voter Drives

Election workers dump ballots collected earlier in the day from drop boxes onto a table for sorting on Nov. 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

(CN) – The ink from Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s pen on a new state law had barely dried before four civil rights groups filed a federal lawsuit Thursday challenging the new regulations for voter registration drives.

The groups say the law that is scheduled to take effect in Oct. 1 – about a year out from the 2020 presidential election – is vague, violates First and 14thAmendment rights and hands down draconian civil and criminal penalties for any group found violating its provisions.

In signing the law Thursday, Governor Lee said, “we want to provide for fair, for genuine, for elections with integrity.”

The most notable provision in the Volunteer State’s new law would impose civil penalties up to $10,000 for any group that hands in more than 100 incomplete voter registration forms and did not use solely volunteer efforts. It also requires training for the groups while prohibiting registration drives from compensating workers based on the number of forms they fill out and submitting forms too late. It also bars out-of-state poll watchers.

The lawsuit was filed late Thursday in Nashville federal court by the Tennessee chapter of the NAACP, Democracy Nashville – Democratic Communities, The Equity Alliance and The Andrew Goodman Foundation, groups that work to register citizens from disenfranchised communities, such as African Americans, low-income voters and college students.

They claim the new law could halt or significantly alter their efforts to register voters.

“The law leaves plaintiffs and others who want to engage in voter registration activities uncertain as to what steps, if any, they must take to comply with the law, discourages plaintiffs and others who want to engage in voter registration activities from undertaking activities protected by the First Amendment, and creates an unacceptable risk that they will be subject to arbitrary and discriminatory law enforcement,” the 40-page complaint states.  

The groups – represented by Taylor Cates with Burch Porter and attorneys with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, among others – want the court to declare the law unconstitutional and stop the state from enforcing it.

Democracy Nashville says it takes paper voter registration forms door-to-door in the city’s projects in an attempt to register citizens of color. Many of them do not have computers.

According to the complaint, the group could be subject to the law because it pays its staff a salary when it can to conduct its canvassing, and to that end receives grants and solicits donations through GoFundMe.

“The organization does not and cannot know what constitutes an incomplete application, does not and cannot know how to comply with the pre-registration requirements, and does not and cannot know what conduct will result in civil and criminal sanctions,” the lawsuit states. “Because Democracy Nashville has a network of paid and unpaid volunteers who collect voter registration applications, it is unclear how or whether the law will apply to the organization.”

The groups cited Pew’s Election Performance Index that places Tennessee almost dead last (49th) in voter turnout. Furthermore, voter registration rates among minority and low-income residents are often low, the complaint noted, because of a reliance on public transportation, limited access to computers and high rates of relocation.

“Plaintiffs’ voter registration activities focus on these communities because they rely more on third-party voter registration drives than do other communities,” the complaint states.   

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett pushed for a change in the third-party voter registration law after some of the state’s counties were inundated by thousands of voter registration forms ahead of the 2018 midterm election. Many of the forms contained only the name of an individual, someone ineligible to vote or an out-of-state resident.

“There is no rational basis for differentiating between paid and unpaid voter registration workers for purposes of the law,” the lawsuit states. “To the extent that defendants claim that the differentiation between paid and unpaid individuals is necessary to stop fraud, there is no evidence that paid voter registration workers are more prone to commit fraud than unpaid volunteers.”

The secretary of state’s office declined to comment on the pending litigation.

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