Rights groups sue Tennessee over latest voter suppression scheme

"I think this hurts democracy. I think democracy is stronger when everyone of us who is eligible to vote, registers and votes."

CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
CREDIT: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Rights groups are challenging a Tennessee law threatening harsh civil and criminal penalties if they fail to abide by restrictive new requirements while registering voters in the state.

Activists say the measure, signed by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) last week, could harm their ability to register underrepresented populations.

State Republicans pressed for the legislation after the group The Tennessee Black Voter Project registered thousands of new voters in Memphis, Tennessee, last year. The bill was among a number of GOP-backed mandates that critics say aimed to suppress voter turnout under the guise of protecting election integrity.

On Thursday, the Campaign Legal Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Tennessee, and Fair Elections Center filed a lawsuit challenging the law on behalf of five voter registration groups.


The suit, filed with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, seeks an injunction prohibiting Tennessee’s Secretary of State Tre Hargett from enforcing the law.

The new law is “poorly tailored, vague, and overbroad” according to the suit, which said the measure places “strict, unnecessary, and irrational restrictions on community-based voter registration speech and activity, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

Marian Ott, president of League of Women’s Voters of Tennessee, which was represented in the latest lawsuit, said the law could hurt efforts to register young people and people of color, which historically vote at lower rates than other demographics. 

“Voter registration drives have shown to be important to getting them to register,” Ott said. “I think this hurts democracy. I think democracy is stronger when every one of us who is eligible to vote registers and votes. That is a basic core of democracy.”

Under the new law, fines would be levied if a group files 100 or more incomplete forms. In the past, such incomplete forms have been found to have missing names, addresses, and registrants’ dates of birth.


The measure, which also bans out-of-state poll watchers, could lead to misdemeanor criminal charges against individuals who knowingly pay poll workers based on quotas, enroll over 100 voters without taking a state training, or fail to submit voter registration forms within 10 days.

A coalition of organizations led by the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP filed a separate lawsuit last week attempting to block the law.

The group argued that the law violates the First and 14th Amendments and “places onerous, unnecessary, burdensome, and unconstitutional obstacles upon on people who want to help others register to vote.”

“Voter registration activities are viewed in many communities as a way to build alliances, bring in members who are on the fringes of the community, work in a nonpartisan manner, and encourage a larger engagement in our democracy,” the lawsuit stated.

“This is particularly true of minority communities, who historically have had stumbling blocks placed in their way of registering to vote.”

Ott criticized the law as vague and said it is unclear if its mandates apply to the League of Women Voters of Tennessee. She added that no other state penalizes groups for submitting incomplete forms, and said the Tennessee law could have a chilling effect on voter registration efforts.

Tennessee was ranked 44th among all states in voter turnout during the 2018 midterm elections despite the fierce voter registration efforts by activists.


Lee’s office did not return calls from ThinkProgress seeking comment about the lawsuit. Lee’s press secretary Laine Arnold told The Tennesseean that the law was needed because many forms submitted by the Tennessee Black Voter Project were not filled out properly, which she described as efforts to “manipulate our voter registration process.”

Tequila Johnson, statewide manager of the Tennessee Black Voter Project, told ThinkProgress last month that the group had handed in incomplete forms to the state because they were told holding onto them would be illegal. She added that the group had reached out to Hargett’s office at the time but did not receive any guidance. Hargett, a Republican, backed the law.

“Tennessee’s law has created the country’s most aggressive penalties for voter registration drives. If the court does not intervene, the state will unlawfully chill the efforts of organizations working to get people registered,” Paul Smith, vice president, Campaign Legal Center said in a statement.

“Voter registration drives for years have been a way for historically marginalized groups to empower their communities and gain access to the ballot box,” Smith added.

“We are taking Tennessee to court to protect that tradition against government threats of fines and jail time.”