A federal judge denied the state’s request to dismiss a lawsuit Monday that challenges a new state law that would put substantial requirements in place for groups that participate in voter registration efforts.
Judge Aleta Trauger for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee said that the lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee and the Campaign Legal Center and Fair Elections Center, will proceed.
Trauger said the plaintiffs in the case have presented “plausible claims.” She raised many concerns about the law in her decision, calling the law a “complex and punitive scheme.”
“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,” Trauger 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.”
One of the judge’s key concerns is the lack of guidance that the legislation's language offers.
“The ambiguity, as well, places too much burden on individuals who merely wish to exercise their First Amendment rights within the law,” Trauger wrote.
The vagueness of the law leads to uncertainty which is “inherently likely to result in a chilling effect on organizations and individuals who wish to participate in voter registration but who cannot afford to find themselves on the wrong side of an enforcement action,” Trauger said.
The judge also noted that 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. There is no point in taking a step to preserve resources if, by doing so, one thoroughly compromises the reason that the resources were important in the first place.”
Read Trauger's decision in full below.
The law in question was signed by Governor Bill Lee in May and is slated to go into effect on October 1st.
Late last month, the ACLU filed a motion for a preliminary injunction. If granted, the injunction would prohibit the state from penalizing those participating in voter registration who don’t meet all the requirements of the new law.
There were 4,872,000 voting-aged Tennesseans, but only 3,183,000 registered voters as of November 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey.
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission ranked Tennessee 44th out of all states in the percentage of its citizens registered to vote.