An insidious new trend is emerging from Republican-held state legislatures in response to a surge of new Democratic voters in 2018.
The 2018 midterms brought a surge of new voters to the polls — many of them younger and minority voters who break heavily toward Democrats.
Yet rather than applaud the new trend of increased civic engagement, three GOP-held state legislatures have instead responded with new legislation making it harder to register voters — and even threatening voters and voter registration groups with fines and criminal penalties if they turn in "deficient" registration forms or otherwise fail to follow the much stricter new rules.
Voting rights experts say this is an insidious new trend intended to chill voter registration and make it harder for people to access the ballot box. And if the strategy works as intended, Republican-majority legislatures in other states might soon follow suit.
"It really seems to be a direct response to a surge in voter registrations from the African American community, and deep engagement from black civic organizations ahead of the previous election," Sunila Chilukuri, a senior research and policy associate at the State Innovation Exchange, said in an interview.
Tennessee's GOP-held legislature passed its voter registration measure on Monday, sending the bill to the Republican governor's desk for signature.
The bill creates all sorts of new rules targeting groups that register people to vote, HuffPost reports. It forces voter registration groups to register with state election officials; imposes a 10-day deadline to turn in registration forms collected from registration drives; bans groups from paying organizers by the number of registration forms they successfully solicit; and subjects any organizers who "intentionally or knowingly" violate those rules to a year in prison, a $2,500 fine, or both.
"In Tennessee they’re trying to penalize people for engaging in voter registration, when there are a ton of different policies that states can be doing to make it easier to register," Chilukuri said.
Many of the new GOP restrictions, she explained, are an overreaction to what amount to clerical problems, many of which are the inevitable result of thousands of new voter registration forms flooding in at once on arbitrary voter registration deadline days. These problems could be fixed with policies like same-day registration and Automatic Voter Registration.
The Tennessee bill looks like a test run for other GOP-controlled legislatures, Chilukuri noted, which could watch the results from Tennessee's law and then decide to create similar rules in their states.
"If the Tennessee bill is ultimately successful, that will inspire legislatures in other states in future sessions ahead of 2020 to adopt policies like this of their own," Chilukuri said.
Two other states are already considering similar measures.
Texas — which was recently forced to reverse an effort to disenfranchise Hispanic voters — is weighing a bill that creates criminal penalties for people who incorrectly fill out voter registration forms. For example, if you are trying to register to vote but write down the wrong ZIP code in your address on a voter registration form, the new law could subject you to jail time.
And in Arizona — where Democrats surged to a series of major statewide victories in 2018 — a new bill would purge people from the Permanent Early Voting List if they sign up to cast a mail-in ballot but don't actually mail the ballot in. Targeting these voters could sow confusion, since most people would expect their registration to be permanent if they've signed up for something called the "Permanent Early Voting List." And that could make voters miss elections that they intended to vote in.
Democrats say that these new attacks on voting rights show the need to vote Republicans out of office at the state legislative level to prevent such malicious bills from becoming law.
"After the Democrat's massive midterm wins, Republicans are doing everything they can to rig the system before next year’s elections," Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said in a statement to Shareblue.
"Republicans in Washington have received attention for gutting the Voting Rights Act, but often the state legislatures go unnoticed as they make it harder to vote," Post added. "The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is dedicated to flipping state chambers blue so we can stop these unconstitutional attacks and expand voting rights."
Ultimately, Chilukuri said, lawmakers should be encouraging people to participate in democracy, not punishing them for it.
"At the end of the day, civic engagement should not be criminalized in any way," Chilukuri said.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.