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Voter registration groups sue to block Tennessee law with tough penalties for signup mistakes

Updated: May 10, 2019

To Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R), the bill he signed Thursday that threatens voter registration groups with criminal charges and fines over incomplete forms and missed deadlines is simply about creating “elections with integrity.”

Voting rights advocates, however, argue the law’s true purpose is keeping new voters, particularly African Americans and other minorities who have signed up in droves since 2016, away from the polls in a state with one of the lowest registration rates in the nation.

A coalition of those groups sued hours after Lee put his signature on the bill, arguing that it violates the First Amendment through a web of unclear new regulations.

“This law comes on the heels of a historic efforts to reach people not yet registered to vote in Tennessee, including African Americans,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told The Washington Post. “This will no doubt chill the efforts of those organizations working to get more people registered.”

The bill was proposed after a group called the Tennessee Black Voter Project turned in more than 36,000 new registrations in Shelby County, where Memphis is located, last October just before early voting began in the midterm elections. The state threw out more than half those forms, claiming they were incomplete or otherwise flawed — a move that prompted a lawsuitand claims of voter suppression.

“There are schools and grass-roots organizations and churches around Tennessee that have all been working to do what the state hasn’t been able to do — to address this crisis of low voter registration,” Clarke said.

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a Republican, argued that the episode in Memphis wasn’t evidence of suppression, but rather proof that voter registration groups needed to be reined in.

“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,” Hargett recently said.

The bill that Hargett helped push through the state legislature in Nashville includes fines of up to $10,000 per county against groups that submit more than 500 faulty forms, the Associated Press reports. It also includes class A misdemeanor charges for a range of violations, including paying workers quotas to sign up new voters, enrolling more than 100 voters without undergoing state training and missing deadlines to send in forms — a crime that could carry nearly a year in jail or $2,500 in fines, according to the AP.

When Lee signed the bill Thursday, he argued that the new rules would ensure fairer elections.

“This bill was presented because of actual circumstances that were meant to confuse the integrity, or to create a lack of integrity in the voting process,” Lee told the AP. “I think we want to provide for fair, for genuine, for elections with integrity, and that’s why I signed the bill.”

But the lawsuit filed against Hargett and other state officials by groups including the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP argues that the law violates the Constitution because “the collection and submission of voter registration drives is intertwined with speech and association.”

“The right to vote is one of the most important rights in our democracy,” said Clarke, whose organization is litigating the suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. “This law no doubt seeks to penalize the groups that worked very hard in this midterm election cycle to bring people into the fold and ensure they’re able to exercise their voice in our democracy.”

State officials declined to comment on the lawsuit, the AP reported.

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