Update: Tenn. House passes bill that could criminalize voter registration organizations

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A bill that could fine organizations that hold voter registration drives passed the Tennessee House on Monday. 

The bill, HB-1079,  garnered support from Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett and passed in a 71-26 vote. 

Under the bill, organizations that file 100 or more deficient voter registration applications would be subject to fines up to $10,000, depending on how many applications are deemed deficient by an election commission office. 

The Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union released a statement Monday criticizing the bill and urging Senate members to vote against it.

“Tennessee already has one of the lowest voter registration rates in the country and this burdensome voter suppression legislation would set our state back even further,” state ACLU executive director Hedy Weinberg said in the statement. “The threat of such penalties will chill efforts to register Tennessee voters from across the political spectrum. Legislators should focus on supporting legislation that will engage eligible voters — not on creating barriers to voter registration drives in our state.”

The bill is on the agenda for the Senate’s consideration on Thursday.

Reported Monday: 

A $10,000 fine could threaten some voter registration groups as a piece of legislation makes its way through the General Assembly. 

The bill, HB1079, is on the floor in the state house today and would criminalize voter registration drives for filing deficient voter registration applications.

According to the bill, election officials would be responsible for inspecting applications for “sufficiency and timeliness.” 

Organizations that file 100 or more “deficient” applications would be subject to a civil penalty of up to $2,000, and organizations that file 500 or more deficient applications could be fined $10,000 for “each county where the violation occurred.” 

In an op-ed to The Tennessean, Secretary of State Tre Hargett urged lawmakers to support the bill, citing instances in Davidson and Shelby counties where election officials experienced a last-minute surge in voter registration applications.

He said many of those applications contained false information or missing information. 

Hargett alleged that the groups orchestrating mass voter registration drives held on to the forms for weeks or months, costing about $235,000 in taxpayer money. 

He argued the bill is a step that would provide enhanced security during the voter registration process.

“While I believe most voter registration drives are altruistic and rely on volunteer labor, there are some that might be motivated more by money and the desire to collect precious voter data,” he said in the editorial.

ETSU Votes is one such organization in our community that the legislation could affect. 

Formed in 2016, ETSU Votes targets college students at events on campus and around the community. Joy Fulkerson, director for leadership and civic engagement at ETSU, said the program has had success in getting students interested in voting over the past three years. 

She said while she believes the bill is well-intentioned, she sees some unintended consequences that could spring from its execution.

“We’re all, I think, trying to do good work, and as I read the bill I think it has some pieces in it that might draw fear for people trying to engage in the work,” she said, adding she would like to see clarification in the bill when it comes to defining organizations that would be affected by its passage.

Fulkerson said ETSU Votes strives to educate students and community members about the voting process in addition to encouraging them to register to vote. She said her concern is that the bill may make registration more complicated. 

“I think anything that might limit and prohibit young people, particularly in our work, from being engaged and connected and moving towards being active in our democracy is something we would caution,” Fulkerson said. 

Other criticisms of the bill include that, if passed,  it would require participants of voter registration drives to complete a training course conducted by a coordinator of elections.

The legislation does not specify how often training would be required, the medium in which the training must be administered or where it must be conducted.

As far as the problem locally? It’s hit or miss, according to election officials. 

Carter County election official Tracy Harris said that she’s never had a problem with mass voter registration drives in her jurisdiction, but Washington County Administrator of Elections Maybell Stewart said her office has experienced problems in the past with deficient applications from registration drives.

When that happens, the office must notify the applicants that their forms are deficient. When many applications are involved, Stewart said that can sometimes mean a lot of extra work for her office.

She said her office has been proactive with mass voting registration drives within the past few years by sending election officials out to drives to make sure forms are filled out correctly. 

“It just saves us work in the long run,” Stewart said. 

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