A group focused on registering black voters in Tennessee reached a tentative agreement in a simmering dispute with local election officials to inspect thousands of voter registration forms the officials say are deficient, a lawyer involved told HuffPost.
The dispute involves tens of thousands of registration forms the Tennessee Black Voter Project turned in to election officials in Shelby County, home to Memphis. The county board said about half of them are invalid because they are either duplicate registrations, incomplete or come from people with felonies who are ineligible to vote.
Because early voting began Wednesday in Tennessee, the Tennessee Black Voter Project wants to look at the voter registration forms in jeopardy as soon as possible to help applicants correct errors ahead of the election and ensure they actually get to vote.
On Monday, the Tennessee Black Voter Project filed an open records suit in Shelby County chancery court, saying the county’s election officials had refused to let its members see the problematic forms because that would require redacting Social Security numbers and other sensitive information. The group said in court documents that officials were only willing to make the forms available after the November election.
“The alarmingly high invalidation rate raises serious concerns about whether valid registration applications are being wrongly rejected,” the court documents read, “and whether the SCEC is properly notifying affected applicants of the status of their voter registration applications and, as required by Tennessee law, permitting them to correct any deficiencies on those applications on or before Election Day so they are not wrongfully deprived of their fundamental right to vote.”
Gerard Stranch, an attorney representing Tennessee Black Voter Project, told HuffPost on Wednesday that lawyers had reached an agreement with election officials “in principle” to let a small group inspect the problematic voter registration forms in person.
Tequila Johnson, the statewide manager of Tennessee Black Voter Project, said it would make a difference if the group was able to access the voter registration forms because organizers might have more success contacting people.
“The organizations that are doing the work have relationships with a large majority of those people that were registered to vote,” Johnson told HuffPost. “We have taken on the responsibility of helping the election commission to do a better job and by getting more people registered. We want to continue what we’ve been doing since July, and that is getting as many people added to the rolls as possible.”
“The alarmingly high invalidation rate raises serious concerns about whether valid registration applications are being wrongly rejected.”
Federal law requires county election officials to notify applicants about whether their registrations have been completed. County officials say they are doing that and are following up with would-be voters using the incomplete information on their submitted forms. Tennessee law allows voters to fix their voter registration applications up to or on Election Day.
Robert Meyers, the chair of the Shelby County Election Commission, said the panel was working to contact as many voters with incomplete registrations as possible.
Officials were still sorting through the problematic applications when early voting started on Wednesday, Meyers said, adding that the commission had alphabetized the problematic forms and had set up a help desk people can call if they vote early and discover their voter registration is incomplete. Officials can then fix the deficiencies on the spot, Meyers said, and the voter should be able to cast a regular ballot.
The county election commission shouldn’t have to accommodate the Tennessee Black Voter Project, Meyers argued.
“They dumped 10,000 of those applications on us on the deadline, basically ...They had control of those documents before they turned them in. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to take a look at those documents and determine whether they’re sufficient or insufficient,” he said.
“You’ll have to kind of pardon the election commission if we’re reluctant to let a bunch of people who created the problem show up and say we want to help you fix it in the midst of us running an election,” Meyers added.
“TNBVP did not submit 10K applications on the last day as claimed by SCEC – 36K applications were sent on a weekly basis for a span of around three months, with an understandable uptick in the last couple weeks, but not 10K on the last day. Additionally, TNBVP submitted all forms as required by TN law,” a spokeswoman for the group said.
Johnson told HuffPost she had contacted the election commission before the voter registration drive began and told them her group wanted to register large numbers of people.
Stranch said that before there was the threat of litigation, the county board wasn’t planning on even processing all of the registration forms before November. Threatened with a lawsuit, the county hired more people and began moving much more quickly through the forms, he said.
“They had control of those documents before they turned them in. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to take a look at those documents and determine whether they’re sufficient or insufficient.”
It’s not unusual for organizers of voter registration drives, who want to register as many people as possible, to produce batches of voter registration forms that have problems, said Tammy Patrick, a former elections official in Maricopa County, Arizona. Amber McReynolds, the former top election official in Denver, said it’s common for election officials to see new registrations from people who are already registered as part of voter registration drives.
“It’s a situation that I’ve seen repeat itself over more than a decade I’ve been involved in this. Oftentimes, you get individuals and volunteers who are excited about getting people engaged,” Patrick told HuffPost. She added that the canvassers who get people to register can be poorly trained or confused about what’s needed to successfully fill out a form.
Meyers also said that after reviewing many of the forms, election officials had been in contact with local and federal prosecutors because some had similar signatures and handwriting. He said officials were continuing to look into the issue.
Tennessee is the site of a closely-watched U.S. Senate race between Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) and former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D).
Linda Phillips, Shelby County’s election administrator, said that number was nearly triple what she expected the county to get. In a September report, Phillips said Shelby County was “drowning” in voter registration forms.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the latest date at which people in Tennessee can correct their voter registration.
This story has also been updated to reflect that Tennessee Black Voter Project disputes Meyers’ statement that the group turned in 10,000 applications on Oct. 9.