Judge: New voter signup penalties create ‘chilling effect’

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A federal judge handed down tough criticism Monday on Tennessee’s new restrictions for signing up voters while refusing to dismiss a legal challenge surrounding the new law set to take effect in October.

“No one in this case disputes that it is crucial to the functioning of our system of government that county election commissions have resources proportionate to the scale and importance of their responsibilities,” wrote U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger. “But restricting voter registration drives in order to try to preserve election commission resources is like poisoning the soil in order to have an easier harvest.”

Trauger’s stern words about the new restrictions — which Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed into law earlier this year — applied to two lawsuits currently seeking to block the contentious rules from being enforced. Trauger denied the state’s attempt to dismiss the lawsuits while issuing lengthy warnings on the law’s likely “chilling effect” on organizations and individuals who seek to register new voters in Tennessee.

The law is likely the first nationally to fine groups for too many incomplete registration forms. It also includes misdemeanor charges for other intentional infractions of new rules. Only paid groups could be penalized under the law, though the legal filings contend the distinction is unclear due to the groups’ use of grant money and stipends for workers in certain cases.

“While it is conceivable that some large, smoothly functioning organizations which limit themselves to heavily planned voter registration activities might be able to comply with the pre-registration requirement without too great a hardship, that is no basis for chilling the speech of organizations for which it would be a burden,” Trauger wrote.

Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett has argued adding penalties bolsters election security. His office didn’t immediately return a request seeking comment Monday.

Previously, Hargett’s office has pointed out that many of the 10,000 registrations submitted in and around Memphis last year by the Tennessee Black Voter Project on the last day for registering were filled out incorrectly.

Under the new law, the state can fine groups that submit 100 or more incomplete voter registration forms that lack a name, address, date of birth, declaration of eligibility or signature. Penalties can reach $10,000 per county where violations occur if more than 500 incomplete forms are submitted. The bill also outlaws out-of-state poll watchers.

“Tennessee’s law is one of the most restrictive voter suppression measures that we have seen this year. This is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to discourage and deter people from helping others to register to vote,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in a statement in response to Trauger’s decision.

In her ruling, Trauger specifically questioned why the law required voter registration organizers file sworn statements confirming they would comply with the law — adding that “the law is the law already, no one has to swear to follow it in order for it to apply.”

Furthermore, Trauger questioned the necessity to impose training requirements on voter registration organizers as currently outlined in the law.

“If Tennessee is concerned that voter registration drives are being done incompetently, it can engage in public education efforts without relying on a complex and punitive regulatory scheme,” she wrote. “If it is concerned that the drives are being done fraudulently— for example, by a person or organization collecting forms and never turning them in— it can punish the fraud rather than subjecting everyone else to an intrusive prophylactic scheme that true bad actors would likely evade regardless.”

(Copyright (c) 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)