Civil rights groups sued Tennessee on Thursday over a controversial new law that will subject voter registration groups to potential fines and criminal penalties, saying the measure is unconstitutional, vague and will intimidate people from helping others sign up to vote.
The lawsuit was filed the same day Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed the law, which is set to take effect Oct. 1. It will allow officials to penalize paid voter registration drives that turn in 100 or more incomplete applications with fines of $150 to $2,000. If 500 or more deficient voter registration applications are submitted, the groups could be fined up to $10,000.
The law also mandates that voter registration drives turn in applications within 10 days of collecting them. It requires paid voter registration drives to register with the state and to put a disclaimer on any public voter registration material that it is not endorsed by the Tennessee secretary of state. Anyone who knowingly violates those provisions could be subject to a class A misdemeanor, punishable in Tennessee with up to nearly a year in prison, a $2,500 fine or both.
Those provisions will stifle the work of groups across Tennessee who register voters, lawyers wrote in a complaint filed in federal district court in Nashville. The law is not clear on what exactly constitutes an incomplete application and what kind of communications require a disclaimer, they say. That vagueness will hurt voter registration groups because they won’t be able to know for certain what is permissible. Lawmakers also subjected only paid voter registration workers to the bill, exempting volunteers without giving a reason for doing so.
Mark Humphrey/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Voting rights activists say a new voter registration law is intended to make it harder to vote in reaction to a surge of voter registration applications last year. Opponents protested the bill in the state House on April 15 in Nashville.
“Because of their vagueness, overbreadth, and undue burden, these provisions will chill Plaintiffs’ voter registration efforts, which have focused on traditionally disenfranchised communities — African-Americans and other minorities, college students, and low-income voters,” the complaint says.
The pending law, lawyers say, violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process and the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of association.
A number of states require groups that want to register voters to undergo training. But Mark Goins, the state’s election coordinator, said Tennessee could be the first state to impose civil penalties for handing in incomplete forms, according to The Associated Press.
“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, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which filed the suit on behalf of the state chapter of the NAACP, and three other groups that do voter registration work. “There is no basis for the law’s draconian provisions that will chill basic First Amendment rights.
This is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to discourage and deter people from helping others to register to vote
Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
Tennessee has some of the worst voter turnout and voter registration rates in the United States. Activists say the new law is a direct response to a successful effort by a group called the Tennessee Black Voter Project to register tens of thousands of voters last year. Officials in Shelby County, home of Memphis, complained they were overwhelmed by the number of applications. The group turned in about 90,000 voter registration forms last year, Tequila Johnson, who led the effort, previously told HuffPost.
Lee defended the bill on Thursday, saying it was necessary.
“This bill was presented because of actual circumstances that were meant to confuse the integrity, or to create a lack of integrity in the voting process,” Lee said, according to The Associated Press. “I think we want to provide for fair, for genuine, for elections with integrity, and that’s why I signed the bill.”
Johnson told HuffPost in April that voter registration drives often get incomplete forms because organizers seek voters on the street, at concerts and in other places where they’re busy and might fill out a form quickly.