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The state of Tennessee has a sordid history of voter suppression and continually ranks at the bottom in terms of voter registration and turnout. Now those conditions could worsen with a new law that many view as a controversial attempt to thwart open and fair elections.
On May 2, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a piece of legislation chock-full of restrictions and punitive consequences for third-party voter registration groups. It seems to be a calculated attempt to tamp down a groundswell of electoral activism that surged across the state last year.
In the months leading into the 2018 midterm elections, many local organizations led a concerted and successful effort to sign up voters all over the state, including the Tennessee Black Voter Project, the Equity Alliance, and the League of Women Voters. This work aided in amassing the largest midterm turnout in Tennessee in the last 24 years, which is astonishing in light of the fact that the state ranked 50th in the nation for voter participation just four years prior. More than 90,000 Black Tennesseans signed up to vote in the lead-up to the election.
Then, just three months after the midterms, Republican lawmakers filed a banal "caption bill" to serve as a placeholder for a bill that would be filed at a later date. The caption bill stated that the future bill would establish that "any paper filed… regarding elections, must be examined by the appropriate election official prior to such filing being accepted to ensure all information required is provided and that any deadlines have been met."
"It was pretty clear that they were rolling that voter registration bill in disguise as a caption bill until the very last minute when they were ready to mobilize on it."
One month later, an op-ed appeared in The Tennessean by Secretary of State Tre Hargett in support of the nonexistent bill, stating it "will preserve the integrity of the election process while encouraging voter registration and the work of well-intentioned voter activist groups." No further detail was given until the bill was finally rolled out in April and was swiftly passed by both the House and Senate with minimal time for debate or input.
Representative John Ray Clemmons was one of many Democrats who attempted to push back on the legislation. He told Scalawag that while caption bills aren't meant to shroud legislation in secrecy, that's exactly how his Republican colleagues used it.
"They had it as part of their top agenda from the Secretary of State's office," Clemmons said. "It was pretty clear that they were rolling that voter registration bill in disguise as a caption bill until the very last minute when they were ready to mobilize on it."
The legislation enables the state to assess tiered fines for groups that turn in 100 or more incomplete forms and mandates state-issued training. It prohibits the practice of piecework or quota-based payment for registrations. and contains vague language criminalizing anyone who intentionally or knowingly delivers erroneous registrations to county election commissions, which could lead to misdemeanor charges punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Once the meat of the bill was public, outcry against the punitive measures began instantaneously.
At the same time, representatives from voter registration groups acknowledged the absolute need for clear guidelines and communication from the state and local election officials.
Equity Alliance co-founder Charlane Oliver stated, "I appreciate that some of this is getting fixed, but we do not need to put it into Tennessee code for this to change. You put it in a code, there's no going back from that. This could be administrative procedure that the Secretary of State could just send out a memo to all 95 counties to say, 'This is how we are gonna do it,' or get input from the voter registration drives themselves."
These organizations don't deny there were paperwork issues leading into the election, but Equity Alliance consultant Brandon Puttbrese says the group tried to collaborate with Republicans to solve the problems, to no avail.
Puttbrese said that in a meeting with Sen. Ed Jackson, one of the bill's sponsors, they asked him to, "pull this bill for one year and let's work together. Call all the stakeholders together. Let's agree on what the guidelines are for voter registration drives and let's create clear direction for how to handle incomplete forms and then let's commit to training the groups and nonprofits that are interested in voter registration drives. Let's see how that works and then in a year if it doesn't work, bring the law back."
Obviously, the negotiation was unsuccessful.
Republican legislators offered flimsy justifications for the law, claiming it would solve problems that, in some cases, the party's other policies have actually exacerbated. They cited voter privacy issues, though they passed a law requiring the use of Social Security Numbers on voter applications, ignoring clear privacy concerns in that instance. They named voter fraud, though they've refused to implement readily available technologies to prevent hacking. And they said the law would alleviate operational burdens on election commissions, failing to acknowledge that problems in that area stemmed from the clunky rollout of new software.
It became clear that Republicans intended to target voter registration efforts in Shelby County, as they claimed these problems were rampant there, even though the percentage of "incurable" voter registration forms––those which can't be processed for a variety of reasons––was largely consistent across the state. Shelby County is home to the city of Memphis and the largest Black population in the state.
The same GOP lawmakers who supported the restrictions on voter registration actively protect the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest that looms over the halls of the legislature.
The Shelby County Election Administrator, Linda Phillips, has stated many times that her office incurred an operational overage of $200,000 during the election season due to massive amounts of incomplete forms. She insinuates that because of the piecework payment that some groups offered, people were incentivized to hand in "incurable" registration forms. Voter registration groups maintain that they were instructed by her office and other local election commissions to turn in any form that was touched.
In addition, Phillips' office struggled to implement the use of brand new software in September of 2018, less than two months before the election. When asked whether any of the administrative costs could be due to the untimely introduction of the software, Phillips skirted the question. Instead, she stated, "We just really didn't have any other options."
Even if Republicans' claim that this law is not retaliatory or prohibitive is taken at face value, beneath the shallow surface swells an excruciatingly obvious culture of historical and systemic racism.
Speaker of the House Glen Casada's Chief of Staff recently resigned after he was outed for racist text messages (some of which were sent to Speaker Casada), among them a message that said, "Black people are idiots." He is also under investigation for allegedly photo-shopping an email to frame a local Black activist for breaking a no-contact order.
The same GOP lawmakers who supported the restrictions on voter registration actively protect the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest that looms over the halls of the legislature. Time after time they shoot down attempts to enfranchise voters.
Two lawsuits have already been filed since the law's passage and Oliver says the tactic of the Equity Alliance moving forward will be, "You wanna come for us, we'll come for your seat. And you can quote me on that."