Vote Suppression in the Volunteer State: Tennessee Bill Would Chill Volunteer Registration Activities

Tennessee Capitol Building
Tennessee State Capitol Building. Photo by Ensign Beedrill via Creative Commons.

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett is proposing new restrictions and penalties that are not right for the Volunteer State.

Hargett is targeting groups that help residents register to vote in Tennessee with penalties for mistakes in voter registration applications that will stymie volunteer registration drives. The bill puts volunteers and organizers between a rock and a hard place by imposing criminal and civil penalties due to inadvertent errors on forms – while also leaving registration drives liable for not mailing the forms in within 10 days. A similarly restrictive requirement in Florida was struck down by a federal court. Tennessee’s bill contains many of the same deficiencies.

The proposal currently under consideration by the Tennessee General Assembly would create restrictive regulations and the country’s most aggressive penalties for voter registration drives that don’t precisely follow their new regulations: up to a $10,000 fine and a criminal misdemeanor.

As written, this legislation gives authority to the state coordinator of elections to create training, but leaves out any details about what the training would be, how long it would take, where it would be available, when it would be available or what certification standards would be.

Any arbitrary regulations that ultimately block or delay an organization from training its volunteers should be taken seriously, particularly given Tennessee’s checkered history with voting rights. Training has to be clear and easily accessible by anyone and the certification process must be fair, efficient and accessible to every Tennessean.

This law would have a chilling effect on any group trying to engage Tennesseans to vote at a time when the state has become increasingly aware of in-state headlines about its low election participation in recent years.

According to the PEW Charitable Trust’s much-cited analysis of the 2014 midterm elections, the most recent figures available, the state of Tennessee was a dismal 40th in voter registration at 74% of voting age population, and was 50th in voter turnout, just 28.5%, that November. PEW's data is based on responses to the U.S. Census Bureau's Voting and Registration Supplement.

"Tennessee’s bill would chill voter registration activities in the state, as civic engagement organizations struggle to invest the time and resources necessary to comply with the training requirements and find volunteers willing to assume the risk of liability."

Campaign Legal Center (CLC) has joined a group of civil rights organizations, including The Equity Alliance, Tennessee Black Voter Project, Think Tennessee and Indivisible in opposing the bill. A letter sent by CLC to the General Assembly Tuesday describes how the bill would violate the First Amendment rights of groups engaged in voter registration drives and undermine registration activities in the state.

Rather than threatening criminal sanctions when organizations provide a public service, the Volunteer State should encourage constructive coordination that can improve the quality of voter registration activities in the state, which would benefit election officials, voter registration organizations, and Tennessee voters.

Corey handles media relations for the CLC voting rights and redistricting teams and creates online content. Follow @cgfromdc on Twitter