Tennessee Lawmakers Consider Fines And Criminal Penalties For Voter Registration Drives

Activists say the measure would chill efforts to register people in a state that already has significant problems with voter registration and turnout.

Tennessee lawmakers are considering a bill that would impose new restrictions on groups conducting voter registrations and subject them to potential criminal charges and civil penalties. Activists say the move is unnecessary and would deter voter registration in a state that already has one of the lowest rates in the country.

The bill would allow officials to impose a fine of $150 to $2,000 on any group that turns in at least 100 “deficient” voter registration applications in a single county. A group that turns in more than 500 “deficient” applications could be fined up to $10,000.

The groups would also be required to register with the state, have 10 days to turn in the forms following the registration drive and would be prohibited from paying people based on the number of forms they collect. Anyone who participates in a voter registration drive and “intentionally or knowingly” violates those requirements could be prosecuted for a Class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to nearly a year in prison, a $2,500 fine or both.

An amendment to the bill clarifies that the penalties would only apply to those who participate in paid voter registration drives, not volunteers.

Voter registration groups could be fined thousands of dollars under a new bill Tennessee lawmakers are considering.
Voter registration groups could be fined thousands of dollars under a new bill Tennessee lawmakers are considering.
DustyPixel via Getty Images

The bill comes after officials in Shelby County, home of Memphis, complained last year they were getting a flood of thousands of voter registration applications close to the voter registration deadline. There was a similar surge in Davidson County, where Nashville is located.

The two counties spent an estimated combined $235,000 to process the applications, Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett (R) wrote in an op-ed in The Tennesseean. The slow processing, Hargett said, was the fault of voter registration groups who waited until the last minute to submit their voter registration applications. Tennessee currently cuts off voter registration at 30 days before an election, the earliest possible deadline allowed under federal law.

But activists say the bill is clearly an attempt to make it more difficult for groups to register voters in Tennessee, which ranks among the worst states for voter registration and turnout. Civil rights groups wrote a letter to lawmakers earlier this week opposing the bill, saying it would “deter” groups from registering voters.

Lawmakers were also targeting the Tennessee Black Voter Project, a group that turned in around 90,000 voter registration applications last year, said Tequila Johnson, an organizer who led that effort. Officials in Shelby County said the group turned in thousands of forms at the last minute with incomplete information before the voter registration deadline.

“This bill is a direct attack on the project that we did. It’s disheartening that the state doesn’t have an issue with being last in voter registration, but they want to make this issue a conversation about doing voter registration drives and incomplete forms,” Johnson said in an interview.

“We have organizations here that are severely underfunded. They don’t have staff [or] a budget to pay $10,000 for a mistake on a form. So it discourages these people that operate in low-income [communities], operate with young people. It’s gonna discourage them from doing voter registration.”

“This bill is a direct attack on the project that we did.”

- Tequila Johnson, organizer with the Tennessee Black Voter Project

Hargett, who declined an interview request, said in a statement the law would protect voters.

“We want every eligible Tennessean to vote, and voter registration must be done responsibly and in a manner that does not compromise the security or integrity of elections. The Election Security Bill will help make sure those who do register to vote are protected, their applications are timely filed, and the integrity of our election process is not compromised,” he said.

The bill has already advanced through committees in the Tennessee House and Senate. Republicans control both chambers of the legislature as well as the governor’s mansion.

Johnson said her group routinely checked the forms organizers would collect last year to make sure they were complete. If an employee routinely turned in incomplete or inaccurate forms, they would be dismissed or have their hours reduced, she said.

It’s not uncommon to have mistakes or incomplete voter registration forms during a registration drive, Johnson said, because organizers try to find people in busy areas and people are in a hurry or distracted when they fill out their form. She said the 10-day deadline would also impose a needless burden on groups that are trying to cover a lot of ground in the state.

“It’s gonna require extra steps, especially in these towns where you have rural counties, especially where people don’t have access to the internet to do the online voter registration. The election commission offices are usually really small and the office hours vary,” Johnson said. “If you’re doing a voter registration drive every day for 10 days straight, imagine how easy it is to forget ‘Oh, these forms were collected on Tuesday or Wednesday.’”

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett (R) is supporting a bill to impose new restrictions on groups that do voter registration drives.
Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett (R) is supporting a bill to impose new restrictions on groups that do voter registration drives.
Tennessee Secretary of State

Johnson added that her group did not pay people based on the number of voter registration forms they collected. She said they turned in so many voter registration forms close to the deadline not because they were holding on to them, but because there was a surge of interest in getting registered as the election approached.

In his op-ed, Hargett suggested groups could avoid problems with paper forms by registering people online. But Johnson said her group often registered people in locations with a spotty internet connection, and that some people might not feel comfortable using the internet to register. Many groups also don’t have budgets to afford electronic devices to give to canvassers to assist them in registering people.

A number of states require groups conducting voter registration drives to register with the state and undergo training. In 2012, a federal judge blocked a measure in Florida that mandated groups turn in voter registration forms within 48 hours or face fines.

Amber McReynolds, the former top election official in Denver, said it was reasonable to require training and to have groups register with the state to provide oversight of groups that are collecting sensitive personal information. But, she added, Tennessee could also act to reduce the problems voter registration drives cause by implementing policies that make it easier to register to vote.

“If Tennessee passed ... automatic registration or they made it more automatic through their motor vehicle process or through other government databases, those drives wouldn’t have to do all this extra work. If the government isn’t doing it effectively, somebody is going to try and supplement,” McReynolds, now the executive director of the National Vote at Home Institute, said in an interview.

McReynolds said that election officials shouldn’t have an overly aggressive approach to dealing with groups that are trying to register voters.

“I think you should have registration, you should have training, but I don’t think you want to have them throwing people in jail for trying to register voters to vote,” she said.

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