Three groups filed a federal lawsuit Thursday challenging a new Tennessee law that would put substantial requirements in place for groups that participate in voter registration efforts.
The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee, Campaign Legal Center, and Fair Elections Center on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee, the American Muslim Advisory Council, the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, Rock the Vote, and Spread the Vote.
The defendants in the suit are Mark Goins, coordinator of elections for the state of Tennessee; Herbert Slatery, Tennessee Attorney General; and members of the state election commission.
The law in question, signed by Gov. Bill Lee last week, lists a slew of requirements for those participating in voter registration efforts and penalties for those who don’t comply.
The legislation, HB 1079/ SB 971, sponsored by Rep. Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro) and Sen. Ed Jackson (R-Jackson) includes conditions organizations must adhere to when holding voter registration drives.
Some of the requirements include providing the coordinator of elections with information about the drive prior to holding it, completing a training, and filing a sworn statement stating an intention to obey the laws and procedures pertaining to the process.
The law also creates civil and criminal penalties to groups or individuals who turn in more than 100 “deficient filings.”
The organizations who filed the lawsuit maintain that the law violates the freedoms of speech and association, due process, and the right to vote under the First and 14th Amendments.
“This is a lawsuit challenging strict, unnecessary, and irrational restrictions on community-based voter registration speech and activity,” the complaint reads. “Plaintiffs bring this action to prevent the enforcement of a new Tennessee law that unconstitutionally burdens and chills there core political speech and associational rights.”
The ACLU-TN said Thursday that Tennessee is ranked 44th in voter registration, but that there was a surge in registration during the 2018 midterm elections. The group believes the new law comes as a result of that registration growth and election officials’ lack of resources to handle the influx.
Sophia Lakin, staff attorney for the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project said the legislation is “punishing” civic organizations that advocate for people’s right to vote and that help them do so.
“With its dismal voter registration rates, Tennessee needs these groups on the ground,” Lakin said. “What politicians should be doing is making sure that local election officials have the adequate resources to do their jobs. Silencing civic groups’ voices is not the solution.”
Paul Garner, organizing director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, one of the plaintiffs agreed, calling the law “draconian” and a form of voter suppression. Garner said the law punishes “those that want the democratic process to reflect and represent as many people as possible in communities like Memphis.”
The lawsuit aims to ensure the political participation of all the state’s eligible voters, Hedy Weinberg, executive director of ACLU-TN said.
“Voter registration drives have long been a way for communities that are historically disenfranchises — including students, people of color, immigrants, and senior citizens — to empower individuals and gain access to the ballot box,” Weinberg said.
The League of Women Voters of Tennessee, another plaintiff, has prioritized making sure voters are properly registered and have all the information they need for nearly 100 years, according to Marian Ott, president of the organization.
“Voter registration surges like the one Tennessee saw in 2018 should be celebrated, not penalized,” Ott said. “We saw this law as a threat to democracy and a direct violation of our Constitution.”
The law created the “country’s most aggressive” penalties for voter registration drives, Paul Smith, vice president of the Campaign Legal Center, said.
“If the court does not intervene, the state will unlawfully chill the efforts of organizations working to get people registered,” Smith said. Voter registration drives for years have been a way for historically marginalized groups to empower their communities and gain access to the ballot box. We are taking Tennessee to court to protect that tradition against government threats of fines and jail time.”