NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) – The 2018 election in Tennessee was one of the most consequential in a generation. The governor’s seat was up for grabs, and now-U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn faced a tight race with Democratic opponent Phil Bredesen.
With public interest high, “It was easy to get 91,000 people to register to vote,” said Charlane Oliver, board president of Equity Alliance, one of 25 organizations involved with Tennessee Black Voter Project.
As the project to register people of color began in July – using grant money to fund its effort – problems started to pile up. A bungled address here, a missing signature there. Among the thousands of forms were registrations that were either false or incorrect.
In an interview, Oliver said county election commissions told the project it was required by law to submit every registration form. So that’s what the project did.
But the counties grew overwhelmed. On the last day to register to vote, 10,000 forms poured into Shelby County, where Memphis is the county seat. Some of the people who registered lived out of state and others were felons. Between Shelby and Davidson counties, about $250,000 was spent on processing and legal fees for a lawsuit regarding the forms.
It’s the situation lawmakers cited when the Tennessee Legislature passed a bill that assigns civil and criminal penalties for any paid voter-registration drive that, in the words of the bill’s sponsor Senator Ed Jackson, “knowingly or intentionally” violates voter-registration law.
The bill would also penalize voter-registration drives that submit too many incomplete forms.
Oliver said the bill targets large voter-registration drives to register minority voters – such as the Tennessee Black Voter Project – because the bill carved out exceptions for employers and nonprofits running voter-registration efforts.
“These things that they claim were an administrative burden for them, they can fix by simply putting the information on their website, or simply changing their policies and procedures,” Oliver said. “It does not take criminal law to do that.”
On Thursday, the GOP-dominated Tennessee State Senate passed the bill 25-6, following the House’s passage of the measure 71-26 on April 15.
Jackson, speaking from his desk on the Senate floor Thursday, said the legislation is intended to reign in paid voter-registration drives.
“While I believe most voter-registration drives are altruistic and rely on … volunteer labor, there are many that might be motivated more by money and the desire to collect precious voter data,” said the Republican who represents the area around Jackson, Tennessee.
Jackson said the bill would require paid voter-registration drives to undergo training. The legislation would prohibit the drives from paying workers to meet quotas.
And if too many forms that are filled out incorrectly are turned in, the organization running the voter-registration drive could be fined up to $10,000.
“You can register to vote at your local library, driver’s license testing center and voting headquarters. While we strive to register Tennesseans to vote, it must be done responsibly and in a manner that does not compromise the security of elections,” Jackson said.
Senator Brenda Gilmore, one of only five Democrats in the state Senate who represents a portion of Davidson County, said voter participation rates in the Volunteer State have dwindled to where it has one of the most anemic participation rates among voters in the country.
Only 45.1% of Tennessee’s eligible voters participated in the 2018 midterm election, according to statistics collected by United States Elections Project run by University of Florida political science professor Michael P. McDonald. Only seven other states have participation rates lower than Tennessee’s.
Gilmore attempted to make two amendments to the bill, one that would strip the criminal penalties from the legislation and another to reduce the amount of the fine, from $10,000 down to $2000, in part to help smaller organizations.
“It sends a chilling effect out to our community when we say we’re criminalizing voter-registration efforts,” Gilmore said.
But the chamber voted to table both amendments.
Democratic Senator David Yarbro, who represents parts of Nashville, said Tennessee has a long history of encouraging voters to participate in American politics – starting with a jump in participation when President Andrew Jackson ran in the 1800s.
Furthermore, Yarbro added, Tennessee was the deciding vote to ratify the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.
But Yarbro said the legislation was akin to using a bazooka on a fly. He said the error rate of incomplete and erroneous forms submitted by the voter-registration drives was similar to the error rate of suspect registrations in other counties across the state.
“If you look at the overall numbers of what these groups did, they did not perform any worse than what private citizens do,” Yarbro said. “They did not perform any worse than what volunteer groups have done. They just performed better at registering more people. And the fact that we’re making it harder to register more people I think should trouble everyone in this chamber.”
With the passage of this bill, Tennessee could join 25 other states that penalize misdeeds during voter-registration drives, according to a document provided by the Tennessee Secretary of State.
In California, holding onto a registration form for longer than three days results in a $1,000 fine. Anyone falsifying registration forms in West Virginia faces $1,000 in fines and a year in jail.
“We want every eligible Tennessean to vote, and complete forms are critical to that opportunity,” Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett said in a statement. “Voter-registration drives are important to the process, but to be successful, we must make sure that citizens submit forms with enough information to be processed. An incomplete form endangers a citizen’s ability to participate in the election process.”
Governor Bill Lee’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment about the legislation.
Because the Senate added an amendment to the bill, it will go back to the House for final approval.