National Politics

Tennessee House OKs bill to penalize voter signup group woes

Suzanne Lanier, front left, holds up a sign in the House gallery as she and others oppose a bill pushed by the Tennessee Secretary of State that would impose new restrictions on groups that hold voter registration drives Monday, April 15, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn.
Suzanne Lanier, front left, holds up a sign in the House gallery as she and others oppose a bill pushed by the Tennessee Secretary of State that would impose new restrictions on groups that hold voter registration drives Monday, April 15, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. AP Photo

Tennessee could penalize some paid voter registration groups with fines for too many faulty signups and criminal charges for violating new requirements under a proposal passed by the House on Monday.

The vote bucked some voting rights groups, who have voiced fear that the bill would create a chilling effect on Tennessee's already-poor voter participation marks.

Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett has made the legislation a top priority, deeming it important for election security after Shelby County, which includes Memphis, saw a flood of often-faulty registrations that came in on last year's deadline.

But Tennessee Black Voter Project, which led the voter signup charge in Memphis and elsewhere across the state, has said the bill immediately followed the group's efforts to register 86,000 black voters.

The legislation by Republican Rep. Tim Rudd of Murfreesboro still needs a Senate floor vote to pass the Republican-supermajority Legislature and head to GOP Gov. Bill Lee.

The bill creates class A misdemeanors if, knowingly or intentionally, groups enrolling 100-plus voters pay based on voter-registration quotas; don't complete state training; or don't ship completed forms within 10 days of registration drives or by the deadline. It would also prohibit out-of-state poll watchers, among other changes.

A class A misdemeanor is punishable by up to about a year in jail and up to $2,500 in fines.

The state could also fine groups that submit 100 or more deficient voter registration forms under the bill. Those that submit more than 500 deficient forms could face penalties up to $10,000 in each county where a violation occurred.

The bill was amended to apply only to groups with paid workers, though state Elections Coordinator Mark Goins testified last week that receiving grants could count as payment. That has brought concerns from some skeptical lawmakers that groups like the Boy Scouts and the League of Women Voters could still be among the groups eligible for penalties, even if they largely rely on volunteers.

During Monday's debate, protesters in the gallery shook signs that said "Keep voter registration legal" and "Locking up good Samaritans is wrong." Several were escorted out of the stands by state troopers.

In advocating for the bill, Hargett's office has pointed to Tennessee Black Voter Project's submission of about 10,000 Shelby County registrations on last year's deadline, with many filled out incorrectly.

Goins has said many of the registrations included incorrect, incomplete or duplicate information, ineligible felons, deceased people and other problems. The scenario erupted in a testy lawsuit in the weeks before Election Day. As a result, Goins said, people who were properly trying to register were put at risk because of the attention on the others.

The Shelby issues caused by the forms cost more than $200,000, while similar issues in Nashville's Davidson County cost about $35,000, Hargett has said.

"There was an attack on the election system last year and we had to pay for it," said Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville.

During debate Monday, the House rejected Democratic amendments to replace the bill with same-day voter registration; exempt faith-based organizations and nonprofits; award attorney's fees when someone successfully contests charges; and have the state Supreme Court appoint the elections coordinator.

"This bill strikes at the heart of voter registration efforts and seeks to criminalize people," said Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons of Nashville.

If the Senate follows suit, the bill would head to Gov. Lee, who was noncommittal when asked about the legislation Monday.

"I think the most important thing to me is that we have free and fair elections and that we have a process that encourages people to engage in that process of voting, and we'll look and see if this bill does that," Lee told reporters.

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