Lost in all of the excitement that Tennessee voting rights advocates experienced when their efforts helped catapult the state to its best midterm election turnout rate since 1994, was that not every state lawmaker was happy about it. That reality hit home recently with the introduction in the Tennessee Legislature of two new bills that threaten to impose significant criminal and civil penalties if errors are found on submitted voter registration forms.
During an era where Tennessee ranks as one of the five worst states in the nation for voter participation in presidential elections, it’s hard to fathom why Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett is supporting draconian penalties like a $10,000 fine and a Class A criminal misdemeanor for voter registration groups who submit forms that don’t precisely follow the stringent procedures that SB 971/HB 1079 would demand.
This targeted effort to suppress the vote evidently comes about because an organization in Shelby County turned in 10,000 forms on the final day of registration in 2018. Since many of these forms contained incorrect or incomplete information, according to state election officials, Hargett has determined that penalizing civic oriented groups who work to promote a more inclusive democracy is a better idea than making it easier for the citizenry to fill out a form.
Nashville Congressman Jim Cooper has called the proposed regulations “a new poll tax” and a “blatant attempt to suppress the vote further in Tennessee.” As if Tennessee isn’t already well known as having a poor record of getting residents to the polls, now the state is going out of its way to intimidate voter registration groups whose main purpose is to motivate citizens to be more civically responsible and better represent their communities by voting.
Congressman Cooper correctly suggests that the bill is a needlessly convoluted solution to a problem that should be relatively simple to fix. “As a state that has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country, we shouldn’t make voter registration more complicated,” he said. “If paper forms are too difficult, we should offer more digital options, such as same-day registration and automatic voter registration. Or we should fix our confusing forms.”
Why can’t Secretary of State Hargett celebrate the documented proof that more Tennesseans are now interested in our state politics and work on correcting the issues that a more engaged electorate present on Election Day, instead of attacking groups whose primary goal is to promote a more participatory democracy?
If you agree with us and prefer to attract more Tennesseans to engage in our democracy by voting, rather than try to scare them away, contact your legislator and tell them to Vote NO on SB 971/HB 1079.