Federal judge blocks Tennessee from criminalizing voter registration drives

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Tennessee tried to criminalize voter registration, but Judge Aleta Trauger wasn't having it.

Tennessee's attempt to criminalize voter registration drives underwent a significant setback on Monday, when a federal judge ruled that lawsuits against the state can proceed.

Several activist groups, including the NAACP and the League of Women Voters, filed lawsuits earlier this year over Tennessee's law that let the state charge voter registration groups with Class A misdemeanors in certain circumstances.

Groups can be criminally charged if they register 100 or more voters but fail to complete state-mandated training. They can also be criminally charged if they register voters but don't mail registration forms within 10 days of conducting the voter registration drive. Finally, groups can also be dinged with a misdemeanor if they pay workers based on quotas of how many voters they register.

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Tennesee has a voter registration rate that is among the worst in the county. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, only about 78% of eligible Tennesseeans register to vote. Voter participation is even worse: The state often ranks dead last in voter turnout. The judge's opinion noted that the rate of voter registration and election participation is even lower in low-income communities and minority communities.

With that, you'd think Tennessee would be committed to increasing voter turnout, but instead, they tried to turn voter registration drives into a crime. But Judge Aleta Trauger was having none of it. In a sweeping ruling, Trauger, a federal district court judge, told Tennessee that these voter registration restrictions constituted a "punitive regulatory scheme" and the lawsuits would go forward.

Trauger also characterized Tennessee's laws as a solution in search of a problem. If the state is concerned with fraudulent voter registration drives, the judge pointed out, it can punish the person committing the fraud "rather than subjecting everyone else to an intrusive prophylactic scheme that true bad actors would likely evade regardless."

The judge's order also took issue with how Tennessee's law punishes the most effective voter registration groups. That's because the law penalizes groups only based on the rate of incomplete forms when they register more than 500 voters. Groups that register thousands of voters with a 1% incomplete form rate would face criminal penalties, but for a group that registered only 150 applications with 66% of those being incomplete, there would be no penalty.

Similarly, Trauger said, if Tennessee is genuinely worried about incomplete registration forms, "it can devote resources to identifying them quickly and working with voters to complete them." And, if the state is worried that processing a high volume of applications is too hard or expensive, "it can make registration simpler."

In other words, the state can do a lot more to actually help voters, rather than frustrating the efforts of voter registration groups. The judge's ruling is a significant step forward in ensuring that all Tennesseans can make their voices heard at the ballot box.

Published with permission of The American Independent.