Br[e]aking Democracy

Last week Tennessee joined states like Texas that throw up barriers to citizen-led voter registration drives. Despite ranking 45th in voter registration nationwide (and 49th in voter turnout), the new Tennessee law threatens people and organizations helping to register their fellow Tennesseans with fines and criminal charges for a wide range of potential violations. This law will have a chilling effect on students, civics organizations, and religious and community groups that traditionally register thousands of people to vote every election cycle, thus further reducing Tennessee’s registration rate and potential voter turnout.

For example, the new Third-Party Voter Registration law requires any person or organization that conducts voter registration drives in Tennessee and that attempts to register 100 people or more people to vote to comply with (unspecified) training requirements and to register their drives with the coordinator of elections. Knowing or intentional violations of these requirements is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500. The new law also imposes civil penalties of up to $2,000 or $10,000, respectively, for submitting more than 100 or more than 500 “incomplete” voter registration applications within a calendar year. The law defines “incomplete” as any application lacking the “applicant’s name, residential address, date of birth, declaration of eligibility, or signature.”

The law exempts from certain provisions “individuals who are not paid to collect voter registration applications” and “organizations that are not paid to collect voter registration applications and that use only unpaid volunteers to collect voter registration applications,” but it is unclear whether this exemption covers a number of common circumstances under which people and organizations conduct voter registration drives. For example, does the exemption cover organizations that receive grants to conduct their activities and use volunteers to collect voter registration applications? Or organizations that have unpaid volunteers at voter registration drives, but rely on paid staff to organize, manage, and supervise the drives?

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has said the law was necessary to maintain election “integrity” by reducing the number of incomplete and late-filed registration applications. But heavy-handed measures like Tennessee’s Third-Party Voter Registration law are part of a broader trend to effect voter suppression and manipulation that includes political and racial gerrymandering, barriers to voter registration and aggressive purges of voter rolls, and restricting access to the polls. Taken together, these regressive efforts put the brakes on increasing civic engagement and effectively break our democracy. Our legislators should be enacting laws to encourage the broadest possible participation in the democratic process, not making criminals of well-intentioned people and organizations that want to give all citizens an equal opportunity to make their voices heard.

Several organizations filed constitutional challenges against the new law shortly after Gov. Lee signed it. The challengers, like The Civics Center, focus their voter registration efforts on populations least likely to register to vote, like young people, first-generation Americans, and people of color, without third parties educating and empowering them to participate in our democracy. Citizen-led voter registration drives are crucial to this work and to ensuring all Americans can exercise their fundamental right to vote.

The Tennessee law will amend Title 2, Chapter 2 of the Tennessee Code Annotated and will be effective on October 1, 2019.  A summary of the law is available here.