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Bill governing voter registration groups keeps watchdogs on alert

Local organizers are calling a new bill moving through the Tennessee General Assembly a direct attack on minority voters.

“It’s preposterous and intended to disenfranchise minorities from voting,” said Ian Randolph, a local organizer who also serves as a committee member for the Shelby County Democratic Party. “It could definitely deter some people from voting and others from hosting voter registration drives.”

Under the proposed bill (HB/1079), voter registration groups that turn in faulty applications could be subject to fines of up to $10,000 or jail time. Despite protests from voter groups throughout the state, the bill was passed in a 71-26 vote by the Republican majority legislature on Monday. It is now headed to the state Senate.

“Legislators who value democracy should be doing everything they can to incentivize registration and voting. Instead, there are some lawmakers who are spending taxpayers’ dollars to exclude potential voters through legislation,” said Siju Crawford, an organizer for #UPTheVote901, a nonpartisan organization that works to register new voters and increase overall turnout.

Tennessee has a 78.5 percent voter registration rate, making it one of the lowest state percentages for voter registration in the country. The numbers, however, have seen a steady increase.

Last year, the Shelby County Election Commission reported a surge in registration, receiving three times the number of applications than the previous year, but according to officials, more than half of those applications were invalid. That’s why some lawmakers say the bill makes sense.

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, whose office backed the new legislation, wrote an op-ed for the Tennessean defending the intent behind the proposed bill.

“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.”

Rep. London Lamar (D-Memphis) voted against the bill, calling the penalties “too aggressive.”

“I understand that we all want to improve the voter registration process, but this is a punitive and incorrect way to fix the problem,” Lamar noted in a written statement to The New Tri-State Defender. “This kind of law would have chilling effects on any group trying to engage our citizens to vote in Tennessee. We are already at the bottom of the nation when it comes to voter turnout and this would further discourage citizens from engaging in the political process.

“Most importantly, criminalizing any group or individuals for attempting to register citizens is a form of voter suppression. Voter suppression is one of our country’s greatest tragedies and it’s sad we are still fighting these very tactics in 2019.”

Last election, the Tennessee Black Voter Project, a coordinated voting registration effort across several organizations, turned in about 90,000 voter registration applications. The project was spearheaded by Equity Alliance, a nonpartisan voter registration group. One of the group’s organizers, Charlane Oliver, questioned the timing of the bill in an op-ed written for the Tennessean.

“Civic groups have been conducting voter registration drives for decades in Tennessee, and no one seemed to have a problem with the integrity of this well-intentioned activity. Yet, three months after black-led groups mobilized to register thousands of black voters, Hargett has conjured up legislation to carve out people that he does not want to vote.”

Local organizers are addressing the same concerns, claiming that it’s an attempt to marginalize minority voters.

“It is interesting that this bill surfaces around a time where we have seen a spike in voter engagement,” Crawford said. “I think the numbers reflect that the communities we refer to as minorities, are waking up and understanding the power of their participation.”

The proposed bill will also impose more regulations on community organizations looking to host voting registration drives. All members will be required to undergo a mandatory training and file a sworn statement affirming that they will adhere to the voter registration laws and procedures.

Violating any of those rules would constitute as a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500. Additionally, forms would have to be delivered or mailed within 10 days of being collected.

“We need voter registration drives in Memphis. And we’ll continue to have them,” Randolph said. “We’ll just have to do our due diligence, but it shouldn’t stop us from registering as many voters as we can.”

Crawford said despite the challenges of the bill, he’ll still move forward to register as many Shelby County voters as he can.

“It’s an act to silence our voices, but it’s something I will use as fuel to organize and mobilize more people.”

The bill is headed to the state Senate for consideration on Thursday.

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