Activists are vowing to fight back after the Tennessee House of Representatives advanced a bill Monday that would impose fines on voter registration organizations that turn in incomplete forms.
The legislation would impose fines ranging from $150 to $2,000 if groups turn in between 100 to 500 unfinished forms. If a group turns more than 500 incomplete forms, they could face fines up to $10,000. Additionally, the legislation would require the groups to submit voter registration forms within 10 days and would also prohibit poll watchers from out of state.
Voting rights activists mobilized quickly to demonstrate their opposition to the measure. “Everyone was all hands on deck,” Tequila Johnson, statewide manager of the Tennessee Black Voter Project, told ThinkProgress Tuesday. “We got as many supporters as we could to come and show support and there were probably 200 people [there].”
Protesters gathered inside and outside the state capitol building, Johnson said, including inside the chamber, where they were told they needed to be silent. The legislators themselves, however, were cheering and clapping, she said.
“They were antagonizing us… It shows how divisive our state legislature is,” she said, adding that she felt the lawmakers were treating the bill like a competition, rather than thinking “about what’s right for our state.”
The bill was originally put forward by Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett (R). According to a Nashville Public Radio report, Hargett’s office said the legislation was prompted by attempts led by the Black Voter Project to quickly register thousands of people in Memphis, Tennessee, before the registration deadline last year.
“The Secretary of State’s offices brought this bill to encourage responsible voter registration efforts going forward,” state Rep. Tim Rudd (R) told Nashville Public Radio Monday.
Johnson acknowledged Tuesday that the Black Voter Project handed in incomplete forms to the state, but that they only did so because they were told holding onto the forms would be illegal. She said they reached out directly to Hargett’s office at the time but did not get any guidance.
“Even though the bill did pass the House, I didn’t feel defeated,” Johnson said. Rather, being there with so many other people who were engaged in fighting back felt empowering.
At the same time, Johnson said, doing the work she is doing now, “standing on the shoulders [of civil rights heroes] and looking at the same devils, the same demons, is just mind blowing.”
Now, the state Senate is scheduled to take up the legislation in their Thursday morning session. Johnson said to expect major protests when they do.
“We are going to keep educating people,” she said.
The legislation comes after the Tennessee Black Voter Project sued Shelby County along with the Memphis NAACP last year. At the time, the county’s election commission was preventing people with incomplete voter registration applications from fixing any problems, like missing addresses or illegible handwriting, and ultimately from voting on Election Day.
The Black Voter Project and the NAACP won their case, and with just over a week to go before Election Day, ordered the election commission to allow people to fix any problems on their applications and vote in the upcoming election.
As of 2018, Tennessee was ranked 49th in the country in voter participation. According to Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee ACLU, this bill would only make matters worse.
“We’ve always said your vote is your voice… [and] fair and free elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and these proposed restrictions inhibit civic engagement and chill individuals’ and organizations pursuing voter registration abilities,” Weinberg said Tuesday.
If the bill is signed into law, it would make Tennessee the only state in the country that has both criminal and civil penalties for submitting “deficient” forms.
Additionally, she noted, it would put the onus on people working at registration drives — often volunteers — to make a call about whether or not to hand in forms, something that could create more problems than it solves.
“There’s no question the legislature should be pursuing initiatives that not only encourage individuals to register to vote and then vote. [They] should be celebrating when there are multiple voter registration drives in both urban and rural settings,” Weinberg said. “It’s very clear we should not be proud of our voter registration rate compared to other states… [and] this bill is creating additional problems.”