A federal judge has blocked Tennessee’s new restrictions for registering voters from taking effect on Oct. 1 while a challenge of the law proceeds.
Judge Aleta Trauger wrote Thursday that there’s no basis in the record to conclude the law will provide much benefit to Tennesseans, and less reason to think any benefit will come close to outweighing the harm to Tennesseans who wish to exercise core constitutional rights.
The law goes beyond other states by fining groups that pay workers when too many incomplete registration forms are submitted. It also criminalizes intentional infractions of a new set of rules with misdemeanor charges.
Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett has argued adding penalties bolsters election security. His office didn’t immediately comment on the ruling.
The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Tennessee, Campaign Legal Center, and Fair Elections Center challenged the law, which had imposed substantial penalties on groups that foster political participation via voter registration efforts. The case was filed on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee, American Muslim Advisory Council, Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, Rock the Vote, Memphis Central Labor Council, and Headcount.
Tennessee ranks 44th in voter registration, but during the 2018 midterm election the state saw a surge in registrations. The Tennessee General Assembly subsequently passed a measure that creates criminal and civil penalties against those who fail to comply with requirements and turn in “incomplete” applications
The court granted a preliminary injunction today.
“Today’s ruling indicates that the court understands the dangerous burdens this law places on organizations simply trying to ensure that as many eligible voters can participate in the democratic process as possible,” said Hedy Weinberg, executive director, ACLU of Tennessee.
“This decision allows our clients to continue their important work of registering voters — including those who have been historically disenfranchised — this election season. We look forward to the day when this unconstitutional law can be struck down for good.”
Theresa Lee, staff attorney for ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said, “By allowing civic organizations to continue their critical work helping people register to vote, this ruling derails a law that sought to undercut democracy.”
The League of Women Voters is pleased with the preliminary injunction, said Marian Ott, League of Women Voters of Tennessee president.
“We can now comfortably proceed with the important work of registering voters and providing election information,” Ott said. “As importantly, we can tell community partners who have halted registration activities to proceed full steam ahead! The citizens of Tennessee and the exercise of democracy are the beneficiaries today.”
Michelle Kanter Cohen, counsel, Fair Elections Center, called the decision a “significant victory for our clients, and other organizations like them, who help make voting and participation accessible to all citizens. The court’s ruling recognizes the critical role of these efforts in our democracy. Because the court stopped these restrictions from going into effect, the door to participation will remain open to community-based civic engagement efforts to engage fellow citizens, which are so badly needed in Tennessee.”
The court was right today to stop Tennessee’s “punitive law in its tracks,” said Danielle Lang, co-director, Voting Rights and Redistricting, Campaign Legal Center. “This law punished civic organizations for seeking to help register voters, particularly those in underserved communities. As the court recognized, it struck at the heart of free speech rights and imposed needless and burdensome regulations.
“Now groups working to help people register to vote can continue their activities, as we continue working to ensure that the threat of criminal penalties from the government is eliminated permanently by a final decision in this case. Voter registration drives for years have been a way for historically marginalized groups to empower their communities and gain access to the ballot box, and we are pleased that this tradition will be allowed to continue.”
The lawsuit, League of Women Voters of Tennessee v. Hargett, was filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. Co-counsel also includes Sherrard, Roe, Voigt & Harbison PLC.
To view the he preliminary injunction, https://www.aclu-tn.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/League-Preliminary-Injunction-Order.pdf
NOTE: Early voting for the Oct. 3 City of Memphis Municipal Election begins Sept. 13 and runs through Sept. 28.
(This story includes a report by the Associated Press.)