Tennessee Uses Deus Ex Machina to Gut Anti-Voter Registration Law

(AP Photo/Mike Stewart, File)

(CN) — The pair of federal lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Tennessee’s attempt to regulate voter registration drives seemingly resolved with something of a deus ex machina Thursday when Governor Bill Lee signed a bill changing the contested portions of the law.

Attorneys representing the groups concerned with voting rights that brought the suits against the state declared victory, saying the state’s law was one of the most aggressive crack-downs of voter registration drives in the nation.

“This is an important win for our clients and all those who help other Tennesseans register to vote,” said Theresa Lee, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s voting rights project, in an email.

Bill Harbison, an attorney with the Nashville firm Sherrard Roe Voigt & Harbison, issued a similar statement to Courthouse News.

Attorneys for the groups that challenged the law said they plan to reach out to the Tennessee Attorney’s General Office on how to proceed in the case.

In May 2019, the Legislature, in response to a rapid uptick in voting registrations during the 2018 midterm elections that overwhelmed some registrars, passed the law that instituted civil and criminal penalties if registration drives handed in too many incomplete or inaccurate voter applications.

Groups such as the League of Women Voters of Tennessee, Rock the Vote and the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP quickly jumped onto two lawsuits challenging the law. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law brought the first suit filed May 2 and attorneys for the Campaign Legal Center, the Fair Elections Center and the ACLU filed the second suit a week later.  

The groups argued the law would cause them to make radical changes or even shutter their efforts to register voters – at a time when voter turnout in the state during the 2018 midterms was some of the most anemic in the country.

In September, U.S. District Judge Aleta Tauger rejected the Secretary of State’s motion to dismiss and ordered the state not to enforce the law.

The lawsuits were consolidated and a bench trial had been set for April 2021. The last activity in the case was an order by Tauger granting a motion to withdraw a previous motion to quash a subpoena in February.

Rep. Tim Rudd, a Republican, introduced the bill at the beginning of February and it was one of the bills the Legislature passed onto the governor’s desk before it adjourned until June 1 because of the coronavirus.

According to the Office of the Tennessee Secretary of State, all of the provisions at issue in the court case are gone: The training for people putting on voter registration drives is voluntary instead of mandatory; gone are the criminal provisions; civil penalties for turning in incomplete forms have been struck.

While civil penalties remain, they apply to voter registration efforts that misuse a citizen’s information or turn in forms past deadline, a spokesperson for the office said.

Senior counsel for the Fair Elections Center Michelle Kanter Cohen said voter participation via voter registration drives can resume.

“Community voter registration drives serve a critical role in our democracy: these community-based civic engagement efforts are badly needed in Tennessee and cannot be replaced with technology,” Cohen said in a statement.

In an email, Lee with the ACLU said that years before, Florida passed a law that was similar to the voter registration law Tennessee passed last year. The Florida legislature, too, repealed the law before a challenge worked its way through the courts.

A spokesperson for the governor did not reply to a request for comment.

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