Federal Judge Blocks Tennessee Crackdown on Voter Drives

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett speaks in Knoxville, Tenn., on May 19, 2015. (Michael Patrick/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) – Calling the law vague with a “complex and punitive regulatory scheme,” a federal judge issued an injunction Thursday temporarily halting the implementation of a Tennessee law designed to regulate voter registration drives.

U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger granted the preliminary injunction even as the state Attorney’s General Office argued that voter registration drives are not communicating about political change and the regulations that were set to take effect Oct. 1 would be a mere inconvenience.

“But, as the court has already observed, the creation of a new voter is a political change—no less so than the inauguration of a new mayor or the swearing-in of a new Senator,” Trauger wrote in her 45-page opinion in support of her order. “If anything, a person’s decision to sign up to vote is more central to shared political life than his decision to sign an initiative petition. A petition in support of a ballot initiative might lead to a change in one law or a few laws, but a change in the composition of the electorate can lead to the change of any law.”

When Tennessee lawmakers passed the law earlier this year, they described a voter registration drive by the Tennessee Black Voter Project ahead of the 2018 midterm elections that registered 91,000 people to vote and overwhelmed county election offices with voter applications – some of which were incomplete or were filled out by people unable to vote.

The law would have created additional requirements for voter registration drives that collect more than 100 signatures and pay for the work of collecting the applications, such as directing those collecting voter applications to undergo training and make sworn statements they would follow the law. It would also require applications be turned in within 10 days and set penalties for the submission of incomplete applications.

The measure further mandated drives make clear disclaimers on its communications with voters that they are not associated with the Tennessee secretary of state, which administers elections.

Groups involved with voting registration efforts, such as the League of Women Voters and the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP, joined two lawsuits challenging the law.

Earlier this week, Trauger denied the state’s requests to dismiss both lawsuits.

Arguing against the plaintiffs’ motion for an injunction, Assistant Attorney General Alexander Rieger filed a brief Monday saying the groups concerned about the voting law were making speculative arguments about the harms of the law.

“Plaintiffs do not want to risk a finding from the Court that their fears were unfounded and that the benefits for Tennessee citizens and elections are real,” Rieger wrote.

But Trauger found the state did little to back up its claims that the voting drive law was important to its interest. Rather, the groups concerned with the law provided much evidence that the law was burdensome.

Furthermore, the judge noted that a presidential primary is coming in March before the 2020 presidential election.

“Forcing the plaintiffs to wait while a case winds its way through litigation would mean taking away chances to participate in democracy that will never come back,” Trauger wrote.

The judge also remarked that while the groups such as Rock the Vote have a reputation and history of voter registration efforts, small budgets and few full-time staffers make the groups vulnerable.

“The Act creates an onerous and intrusive regulatory structure for problems that, insofar as they are not wholly speculative, can be addressed with simpler, less burdensome tools,” Trauger wrote.

And while the state argued that issuing an injunction to stop the voting law would encroach on its sovereignty, Trauger said the state surrendered elements of that sovereignty when it joined the United States, first in 1796 and again in 1866 after the Civil War.

“It is no affront to that sovereignty to hold the state to its commitments,” Trauger wrote.

Today, Tennessee has one of the lowest voter registration rates in the union.

Danielle Lang, a voting rights attorney with the Campaign Legal Center who is representing some of the organizations challenging Tennessee’s law, said in a statement, “Voter registration drives for years have been a way for historically marginalized groups to empower their communities and gain access to the ballot box, and we are pleased that this tradition will be allowed to continue.”

Samantha Fisher, spokesperson for the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, said the office disagreed with “the conclusion and the analysis of the order” and it would be determining its next steps.

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