Tennessee has one of the lowest voter registration rates in the country, according to Pew’s Election Performance Index. Soon, it could get a lot harder to help people there register to vote.
Tennessee has a registration rate of 78.52%. While that would be a passing grade at school, it puts Tennessee at 45th among the 50 states for its voter registration rate.
A bill currently making its way through the Tennessee legislature would impose new restrictions on groups that hold voter registration drives and subject them to potential jail time and massive fines.
Under one of the provisions, individuals or organizations that submit 100 to 500 “deficient” voter registration applications, meaning forms that are incomplete or contain incorrect information, could be hit with a $150 to $2,000 fine. Submitting more than 500 “deficient” forms could result in a fine of up to $10,000.
Forms would have to be delivered or mailed within 10 days of being collected, or by the state’s voter registration deadline. Tennessee cuts off voter registration at 30 days before election day.
The bill would also make it more difficult to hold a voter registration drive in the first place.
Before holding a drive, an organization registering 100 or more people would have to: provide the county elections coordinator with contact information for the people conducting the drive, notify the coordinator about where the drive is being held, complete voter registration training through the elections coordinator and file a sworn statement stating it’ll abide by all voter registration laws and procedures.
Violating any of those rules “intentionally and knowingly” would constitute a Class A misdemeanor – the most serious misdemeanor, punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500.
The rules wouldn’t apply to volunteers who sign up voters or to organizations that rely solely on volunteers to register voters. But the law is vague about what organizations count as having paid staff.
In the Tennessee state Senate, the bill has made its way through local and state committee and has been referred to the calendar committee for scheduling. In the state House, it has advanced through committees and is on the calendar for April 15.
Scholars and civil rights groups raise alarm
Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, whose office is behind the legislation, wrote in an op-ed for the Tennessean that the law is intended to preserve the integrity of the election process.
“While we strive to register Tennesseans to vote, it must be done responsibly and in a manner that does not compromise the security of elections,” Hargett wrote. “Groups that seek to register large numbers of voters, while typically doing so with good intentions, potentially put legitimate voter registrations at risk.”
But scholars and civil rights groups argue that the law targets disenfranchised communities and say it would have a chilling effect on those trying to help others vote.
“Voter registration drives have long been used to empower communities that are historically disenfranchised, including students, immigrants, people of color and seniors,” Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee told CNN. “This legislation would inhibit access to the ballot and undermine civic engagement.”
Sekou Franklin, a professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University, called the proposed law “draconian” and said it was a response to heightened mobilization among African-American voters in the last election.
“You don’t jail people for trying to politically participate in a democratic way unless you have other motives,” Franklin said.
Franklin said he was troubled that individuals and organizations could potentially incur fines for inconsistencies or errors in voter registration forms.
“There’s always deficient applications,” Franklin said. “If you’re an organization and you register three or four thousand voters, and you have 100 deficient applications, that could be a $10,000 hit. That’s a one percent rate.”
In his op-ed, Hargett wrote that deficient applications cost the two largest counties in the state thousands of taxpayer dollars. In Shelby County, the election administrator estimated the cost to be more than $200,000. In Davidson County, the administrator said it cost $35,000 to process and correct forms with insufficient information.
Hargett also cited a last-minute surge in voter registration applications as reason for requiring forms to be submitted within 10 days of collection.
Activist calls the bill a direct attack
Tequila Johnson says the bill is a direct attack on the work done by the Tennessee Black Voter Project, for which she served as a statewide manager in the last election. The project was a coordinated effort across several organizations and turned in about 90,000 voter registration applications last year. It also focused on educating voters and building coalitions.
“This project highlighted some really, really big topics here in the state and brought a lot of people together across party lines, across race lines,” she said. “And I personally think that that is a threat for what our state stands for right now.”
Even though the bill could subject her to potential fines and other consequences if passed, Johnson said it wouldn’t discourage her from working on voter registration.
“It would be cowardly of me to give up now because Tre Hargett wants to figure out how to continuously oppress young people, people of color, women and elderly people’s right to vote.”
Hargett’s office has not yet returned a phone call for comment.
CNN’s Madeline Holcombe contributed to this report.