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Tenn. bill adds new challenges to voter registration drives

by PRIDE Newsdesk

According to state election statistics from November 2018, more than four million Tennesseans currently are registered to vote. (photo courtesy of Annap/Adobe Stock)

The Tennessee House has passed a bill that aims to clamp down on voter-registration drives.

House Bill 1079, sponsored by Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, would fine civic groups organizing voter-registration drives upwards of $10,000 for submitting large numbers of inaccurate or insufficient voter registration forms. Advocacy groups and even individuals could be faced with criminal misdemeanor charges.

Charlane Oliver, co-founder and president of the Nashville-based Equity Alliance, said she thinks the penalties outlined in the bill are unnecessarily harsh.

“How do you determine intent, when someone is providing you a form, that you don’t know whether the information is true or not? You have to go off their word, we cannot verify that, and they’re leaving that burden up to groups to do,” she said.

Supporters of the bill, including Secretary of State Tre Hargett, have said HB 1079 is needed to improve election security.

Oliver said local election commissions are supposed to verify voter registration, not the groups helping people register to vote. Last year, she said, a coalition of more than 20 organizations, collectively called the Tennessee Black Voter Project, registered more than 90,000 people across the state, most from majority black areas such as Memphis and surrounding Shelby County.

“And it’s based on the experience that they had back in November, Oct./Nov., of last year, when we did the Tennessee Black Voter Project,” Oliver said. “This is the driver and motivation for the bill.”

Civic groups often organize voter-registration drives in communities where people lack access to transportation, and in rural areas. Oliver said volunteers are on hand to help people understand the registration process.

“People don’t understand that we have a 30-day cutoff in Tennessee, so you must be registered to vote 30 days in advance,” she said. “But most people are not paying attention until at least two weeks before an election, so it’s too late for them by then.”

Oliver said Tennesseans have a dismal record when it comes to voting. Studies have shown state voter turnout consistently ranks among the lowest in the country.

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