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Tennessee Slapped With Lawsuit Hours After Adoption of New Voting Law

May 3, 2019 by Dan McCue

The Tennessee Chapter of the NAACP sued state elections officials Thursday, just hours after Governor Bill Lee signed a law making the Volunteer State the first in the union to fine voter registration groups for turning in too many incomplete signup forms.

In a lawsuit filed in the federal court in Nashville, the NAACP, Democracy Nashville-Democratic Communities and other civil rights organizations claim the law, which is set to take effect in October, will suppress efforts to register minorities and other voters.

Among other things, the new law includes provisions allowing for civil and criminal penalties up to “tens of thousands of dollars” the plaintiffs claim, and also criminalizes “any public communication” made by a third-party group to a voter about the voter’s registration status if it is not accompanied by a disclosure that the communication was not authorized by the Secretary of State.

“Tennessee’s law is one of the most restrictive voter suppression measures that we have seen this year. This is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to discourage and deter people from helping others to register to vote,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit that helped file the lawsuit.

“There is no basis for the law’s draconian provisions that will chill basic First Amendment rights,” Clarke continued. “We will use every tool in our arsenal to fight a law that would undermine the work of voter registration organizations and advocates across the state. Tennessee has one of the lowest voter registration rates of any state in the country — lawmakers should be working to address this and instead have chosen to exacerbate the crisis.”

The bill won passage in a state legislature with a GOP supermajority over the protests of Democrats and voting rights groups.

Critics argued that threats of civil penalties and misdemeanors could discourage people from helping others become civically engaged in a state that ranks dismally low in voter participation.

But Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett said the law is intended to address very real problems with voter registration in the state.

He pointed to thousands of registrations submitted in and around the City of Memphis on the last day to qualify to vote in the 2018 election that he said were filled out incorrectly.

Clarke said the Tennessee law will silence organizations that reach out to those not-yet registered and marginalized communities that historically benefit from third-party voter protection efforts.

The Tennessee Secretary of State’s Office said other states have imposed fines and criminal penalties in connection with deadlines for submitting voter registration forms.

However, Tennessee appears to be the first to impose civil penalties for submitting incomplete forms.

The law makes it a class A misdemeanor for voter registration groups to knowingly or intentionally pay workers based on quotas; if they enroll 100 or more voters and don’t complete state training; or if they enroll 100-plus voters and fail to ship completed forms by the deadline or within 10 days of registration drives.

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

The state could also fine groups that submit 100 or more incomplete voter registration forms in a year that lack a name, address, date of birth, declaration of eligibility or signature.

Penalties can reach $10,000 per county where violations of the law occur if 500 or more incomplete forms are submitted in those jurisdictions.

The bill also outlaws the use of out-of-state poll watchers.

A representative of the Tennessee Secretary of State’s Office, which was also named a Defendant in the case, declined to comment on pending litigation.

But David Goodman, president of The Andrew Goodman Foundation, one of the plaintiff civil rights groups in the case, said, “My brother, Andrew Goodman, died defending voting rights, and this legislation is an affront to his legacy.

“A healthy democracy requires the participation of all of its citizens, especially the younger generation. Yet we are witnessing an unprecedented assault on youth voter participation, as evidenced by restrictive and un-American legislation like H.B. 1079/S.B. 971, which criminalizes organizations that strive to enfranchise underrepresented groups,” Goodman said. “We should be encouraging more young people to vote, not discouraging them. The Andrew Goodman Foundation has and will continue to advance my brother’s work by ensuring that everyone has equal access to the ballot.”

Ira Feinberg, partner at Hogan Lovells US LLP, one of the law firms representing the plaintiffs, said “this case represents an attack on the fundamental right of Tennessee citizens to register and vote.

“This new Tennessee law opens a new chapter in state efforts to suppress minority votes, responding to the historic voter turnout of 2018 by seeking to impose burdensome and unnecessary restrictions on efforts to register minority voters,” Feinberg said. “This type of law is blatantly unconstitutional, and must be stopped in its tracks before similar efforts expand across the nation.”

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