On May 2, 2019, Tennessee enacted a new law imposing some of the nation’s most stringent restrictions on voter registration activities. The law imposes unprecedented civil and criminal penalties on groups that collect and submit voter registration forms that are missing information or who fail to make certain mandatory disclaimers in their public communications about voter registration. These restrictions include:
- Severe civil and criminal penalties for turning in 100 or more “incomplete” voter registration forms—despite the fact that the law both requires voter registration organizations to turn in almost all of the forms they receive and is not clear about what constitutes an “incomplete” voter registration form;
- Mandatory preregistration of every voter registration drive conducted by an organization or person who is paid to conduct voter registration activity;
- Mandatory participation in state run training for anyone taking part in voter registration activities; and
- Burdensome disclaimer requirements for all “public communications” by civic groups engaged in voter registration activities.
For years, voter registration drives have been a way for historically marginalized and disenfranchised groups to empower their communities and gain access to the ballot box. Yet, Tennessee—which has one of the lowest voter registration rates in the country—is unlawfully chilling the efforts of organizations working to get people registered, in apparent response to civic efforts during the last election cycle to boost voter registration and turnout in the state.
Lawmakers in Tennessee have asserted that the law is needed to combat “fraud” in voter registration—without offering any real evidence that such “fraud” exists or would be addressed by threatening civic groups with civil and criminal penalties.
Instead, the new law hampers the activities of civic groups seeking to register and mobilize voters in their communities. In so doing, the law violates these groups’ freedom of speech, freedom of association, and due process rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
CLC has challenged the law in court on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee, Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, American Muslim Advisory Council, Memphis Central Labor Council, Rock the Vote, and HeadCount. These civic organizations have actively engaged in voter registration and mobilization in Tennessee in the past and intend to continue doing so in the future. CLC’s co-counsel are the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, the ACLU Foundation of Tennessee, and the Fair Elections Center.
CLC and its co-counsel have also sent a notice letter to the Secretary of State informing him of the ways in which the new state law violates the National Voter Registration Act.