Tennessee Bill Targets Voter Registration Advocacy Groups

Amid fierce opposition, Tennessee's state House of Representatives passed a measure on April 15 which would impose fines on community groups that file incomplete voter registration applications. Opponents of HB1079 claim the measure will suppress minority voters in a state where voter turnout is already very low. The Republican-backed measure requires voter registration groups to undergo training and would impose fines on those same groups if they submit too many incomplete forms, according to The Tennessean. The House approved the bill with a vote of 71-26.

Protesters rallied at the state Capitol to denounce the bill, which they believe is an effort to combat newly registered Black and Latino voters during the 2018 midterm elections. “It’s clearly intended to have a chilling effect on voting efforts across Tennessee,” said Democratic state Representative John Ray Clemmons, who opposes the bill, according to The New York Times.

A group of nearly 100 protesters urged lawmakers to vote against HB1079, and cautioned that those who voted in favor of the bill would be voted out, The Tennessean reported. “Vote no or you must go,” protesters chanted. “We want to make sure the legislators understand that they’re not going to pass legislation like this, this draconian legislation, without our voice being heard,” Timothy Hughes, staff attorney for Tennessee-based nonprofit Equity Alliance, told News Channel 5 Nashville. “We want them to understand that they’re not going to do it under the cover of darkness.”

Prior to the midterm elections, community groups in Tennessee registered tens of thousands of Black and Latino voters. However, thousands of those applications in Shelby County were thrown out over various reasons. Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a Republican, supports the measure. He claimed that local officials encountered thousands of late-filed registration forms, many of which were incomplete.

“We want every eligible Tennessean to vote, and voter registration must be done responsibly and in a manner that does not compromise the security or integrity of elections,” Hargett said on Tuesday, The New York Times reported. Hargett’s office did not immediately respond to The North Star’s request for comment. The bill would levy a civil penalty against groups that submit more than 100 deficient voter registration applications.

Republican Representative Tim Rudd moved to limit the ability to impose fines against voter registration groups, The Tennessean reported. Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins later clarified that only groups with paid employees to oversee voter registration drives would face fines.

While HB1079 imposes civil penalties for incomplete registration forms, groups leading voter registration drives could face a criminal penalty if they do not take the mandated training. Tequila Johnson, co-founder of Equity Alliance, which advocates for African Americans and people of color to get involved in the voting process, told Republican Representative Micah Van Huss that the bill constituted voter suppression and would discourage people from volunteering.

Governor Bill Lee, a first-term Republican, has not committed to supporting the legislation, according to the Associated Press. On Monday afternoon, Lee told reporters that he wanted to make sure that there were free and fair elections in Tennessee and that Tennesseans were encouraged to engage in the voting process. “We’ll look to see if this bill does that,” Lee said, The Tennessean reported.

Republicans have control of Tennessee’s House and Senate. The Senate may consider its version of the measure within a few days, a spokesman for Tennessee’s House Republican Caucus told The New York Times. Despite the governor not expressing commitment to the bill, opponents said they expected the bill to be signed into law.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.