Civil rights groups have filed a federal lawsuit against Tennessee lawmakers challenging the constitutionality of H.B. 1079. The law levies stiff fines on groups that submit incomplete or incorrect voter registration forms, increases training requirements for their employees and volunteers, allowing criminal charges for violators, and makes organizing voter registration drives more difficult.
The measure, which has drawn national criticism, was introduced by Secretary of State Tre Hargett and makes Tennessee the first state to impose civil penalties for turning in incomplete or erroneous voter registrations. Hargett cited errors on forms turned in last October, specifically by the Tennessee Black Voter Project in Memphis, where the group registered tens of thousands of black voters for the midterms. State election officials disqualified thousands of voter forms from Shelby County; the Tennessee Black Voter Project promptly filed a lawsuit against the Shelby County Election Commission, which it won, that allowed voters to correct their forms.
Under the new law, civil penalties would fine any group that submits 100 or more “deficient” voter registration forms in a calendar year up to $10,000 per county. In addition, the law would make it a Class A misdemeanor, with jail time of up to nearly a year and/or a fine up to $2,500, for a group to set a minimum number of registrations for workers to collect or fail to comply with the many new requirements regarding voter registration drives.
The Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP, Democracy Nashville-Democratic Communities, The Equity Alliance and the Andrew Goodman Foundation filed suit in U.S. District Court in Nashville challenging the new law, which would go into effect Oct. 1 — just before local elections. The suit argues that the law effectively discriminates against black people, students and low-income voters.
Here are five issues with the voter suppression law you should know:
1. Voter registration groups say they followed state law and election officials’ advice when they submitted the forms that prompted the passage of this law. The Tennessee Black Voter Project submitted 36,000 forms in Shelby County last October, and Shelby County Election Administrator Linda Phillips said about 22 percent, or 8,000 of them, were incorrect. But Tennessee law prohibits throwing out a completed voter registration form. The Black Voter Project also stated it reached out to local election officials, and was advised to turn in forms even if they were incomplete or contained any errors.
2. Tennessee already has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the country. Pew Research Center’s Election Performance Index ranks Tennessee 40th in the nation for voter turnout. Shelby County’s voter turnout ranks 94th out of the state’s 95 counties — and the county election commission isn’t doing much to help. In 2007, 70 percent of voters approved a city charter amendment for Ranked Choice Voters (RCV), which lets voters rank candidates and eliminates the need for a runoff election, but the election commission still hasn’t offered RCV at the polls. (Phillips has said RCV will be available for city council elections in October.)
3. Minor errors can justify disqualification of voter registration forms, and voters aren’t always notified. Last October, the state refused to accept forms for reasons as minor as not checking a box to indicate a prefix (e.g. “Mr.” or “Ms.”). A Shelby County chancellor ruled voters should be notified of any problems with their forms.
4. Democrats say the measure is the GOP-led state’s response to record voter turnout in the midterms. The majority of Shelby County voters participated in the midterms for the first time in years, and Democrats flipped key political positions, such as sheriff and county mayor. Critics are calling the law an unabashed attempt by Republicans to tamp down progressive and minority voters. U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Nashville) said the state needs “to stop suppressing the vote.”
5. Locals are already mobilizing to empower voters. The Rev. Earle J. Fisher’s work organizing the People’s Convention, held June 8, and the movement he founded, UpTheVote901, aim to give locals access to candidates — and their stances on issues — in advance of the city election on Oct. 3. Tennessee is the first state to pass such a restrictive voting law; but the Brennan Center for Justice reports 19 laws limiting voting rights in 10 states are moving forward. Grassroots movements are increasingly important as voters seek access to the polls.
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