The law, which was originally set to go into effect in October, would require voter registration drives to register with the state, put disclaimers on their voting materials and to turn in applications within 10 days of collecting them. Under the law, anyone who knowingly doesn’t comply with those measures could be subject to a class A misdemeanor, punishable in Tennessee by up to nearly a year in prison, a $2,500 fine, or both.
The measure would also impose fines of $150 to $2,000 on voter registration groups if they turn in at least 100 incomplete voter registration forms. It would allow officials to fine voter registration groups up to $10,000 if they turn in more than 500 incomplete forms.
“There is simply no basis in the record for concluding that the Act will provide much benefit to Tennesseans, and even less reason to think that any benefit will come close to outweighing the harms to Tennesseans (and non-Tennesseans) who merely wish to exercise their core constitutional rights of participating in the political process by encouraging voter registration,” U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger wrote in her decision blocking the law from going into effect. She also called certain provisions of the law “troubling” and “vague.”
The Tennessee law specifically targets groups that use paid canvassers in voter registration drives — the norm in many places across the country. If the law survives the current legal challenge and the judge’s block is lifted, it could be a model for other states to restrict those activities.
“Restricting voter registration drives in order to try to preserve election commission resources is like poisoning the soil in order to have an easier harvest.”
“The court was right today to stop Tennessee’s punitive law in its tracks. This law punished civic organizations for seeking to help register voters, particularly those in underserved communities,” Danielle Lang, an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center who represented some of the plaintiffs, said in a statement.
Tennessee has one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country. Civil rights and voter registration groups who sued the state over the new law said it was a clear attempt at voter suppression that came after one group, the Tennessee Black Voter Project, turned in 90,000 voter registration applications ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
Election officials accused the Tennessee Black Voter Project of turning in thousands of voter registration forms at the last minute, which they said overwhelmed their staff close to Election Day. The new restrictions were needed, they said, to ensure that didn’t happen again.
Trauger was not impressed with that rationale.
“Restricting voter registration drives in order to try to preserve election commission resources is like poisoning the soil in order to have an easier harvest,” she wrote in an earlier ruling in the case this week.
Trauger also recognized voter registration drives as a form of speech protected by the First Amendment, which means that restrictions on them should be subject to high scrutiny. She noted there were ways for Tennessee to address its concerns about voter registration drives without subjecting people to strict regulation.
“If Tennessee is concerned that voter registration drives are being done incompetently, it can engage in public education efforts without relying on a complex and punitive regulatory scheme,” she wrote.
Mark Goins, the Tennessee coordinator of elections, said in a statement, “Our goal is to properly register voters and make sure Tennesseans know their votes matter. We have worked with the Tennessee legislature to make it extremely easy to register to vote. One of the best ways to register to vote is online at GoVoteTN.com. Registering online is fast, accurate and secure.”
Read Thursday’s decision below:
This story has been updated with a statement from Tennessee’s coordinator of elections.