Tennessee sued over new law that could put people in jail just for registering voters


Tennessee passed a law that would civilly fine and criminally penalize people who conduct voter registration drives, but a coalition of plaintiffs is fighting back.

Earlier this year, three GOP states — Tennessee, Texas, and Arizona — either passed or contemplated bills that would penalize those who tried to register people to vote. Now, a coalition of groups, led by the NAACP, is suing to block Tennessee's law from taking effect.

The law passed by Tennessee would fine voter registration groups if they collected too many incomplete registration forms. Other provisions in the law could lead to people being charged with a Class A misdemeanor. The law takes effect in October 2019, but the lawsuit seeks an injunction against the state, which would stop them from implementing or enforcing the law.

The plaintiffs in the case, the Tennessee branch of the NAACP, the Equity Alliance, the Andrew Goodman Foundation, and Democracy Nashville-Democratic Communities all work to ensure that low-income African American voters are registered to vote. But all of them would need to scale back their voter registration because they're worried about criminal prosecution and civil penalties.

The groups suing to block the law say that the restrictions on voter registration violate their free speech rights: "[H]elping fellow community members register to vote and engaging them in conversations about civic participation ... is essential to meaningful participation in our democracy."

It also implicates their First Amendment right of freedom of association. Besides guaranteeing free speech, the First Amendment guarantees that you have the right to engage with who you wish and the government can't stop you. Were Tennessee's law to go into effect, members of these organizations would be unable to "associate with each other and with potential voters to engage in political conversations about voting and to broaden the public's participation."

They also argue that the law is vague and hard to follow, as it fails to define terms like "paid" or "unpaid" in the context of individuals who register voters. The law is similarly vague in defining what a "voter registration drive" is. When laws are unclear, people are at risk of being civilly fined or criminally charged for something they didn't know was against the law.

Tennessee generally ranks the lowest in the country for voter turnout, with only a paltry 28.5% of eligible voters turning out to vote in the 2014 midterms. In the 2016 presidential election, they rose a trivial single spot to be ranked 49th for turnout, with only 62% of eligible voters showing up. Among African American voters, the rate is much worse. Only 49% of eligible African American voters participated in the 2016 election.

The state's rate of voter registration is abysmal too. Only 74% of eligible voters are even registered to vote, putting Tennessee 40th in the country. Among African American voters, the rate is much worse.

The GOP is running scared because voter registration efforts work. The 2018 midterm election saw a jump of nearly 20 percentage points over the 28.5% participation recorded in 2014. Republicans know the only way they can win is to suppress the vote. Hopefully, the courts in Tennessee won't let them have their way.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.