This week, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and state partners—the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP, Democracy Nashville-Democratic Community, League of Women Voters of Tennessee, Urban League of Middle Tennessee, The Equity Alliance, and Tennessee Black Voter Project—issued a letter urging the legislature to reject a proposed bill that would have a chilling effect on voter registration efforts and voting rights across the state. The bill seeks to impose a range of restrictions on third-party voter registration groups. The bill, if passed, would require organizations that register voters to comply with preregistration requirements or face draconian criminal and civil penalties, including fees in the tens of thousands of dollars.
“Without question, Tennessee lawmakers are advancing an effort intended to suppress the efforts of those seeking to register people to vote. The bill, if passed, would have a harmful effect on a range of community groups as well as on communities who historically benefit from third-party voter protection efforts. The combination of burdensome preregistration requirements and potentially draconian criminal and civil penalties will have a chilling effect on voter registration efforts across the state,” said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Given that Tennessee has some of the lowest registration rates in the country, lawmakers should be working to make it easier and not harder to vote.”
The bill also criminalizes “any public communication” made by a third-party group to a voter about the voter’s registration status if it does not accompany a disclosure that the communication was not made in conjunction or authorized by the Secretary of State. This provision also opens groups up to harsh criminal penalties. The coalition’s letter outlines the negative impact that these restrictions would have on African Americans, low-income, and other minority voters.
Many local groups that have a statewide presence and serve a wide range of voters from women, African Americans and minorities, veterans, and disabled individuals have voiced opposition to the bill.
Marian Ott, President of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee said, “This bill would seriously hinder the League’s efforts and other large scale voter registration efforts. Because these registration efforts are often on focused communities underrepresented in our voting population, especially youth, people of color and those living in poverty, this proposal sends the wrong message about Tennessee’s commitment to democracy.”
In a similar vein, Dr. Sekou Franklin, Co-Coordinator of Democracy Nashville-Democratic Communities said, “The proposed bill is a voter suppression bill masked as a face-neutral approach to maintain election integrity. However, it presents an attack on grassroots organizations invested in voter empowerment. It attempts to curtail the voter participation of historically marginalized groups such as African Americans.”
Grassroots activists have also spoken out against the bill. “In a state that performs poorly in voter registration and turnout, it is especially egregious to impose criminal and civil penalties for voter registration drives. We strongly oppose any attempts to deter civically-minded individuals from conducting one of our nation’s most fundamentally democratic acts,” said Tequila Johnson, Co-founder and Vice President of The Equity Alliance and Statewide Manager of the Tennessee Black Voter Project.
The full letter can be read here.