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Tennessee Tries to Kill Vote Canvassing

In 2013, the conservative Supreme Court hamstrung the Voting Rights Act by destroying pre-clearance and removing authoritarian Southern states from a federal watch list. Practically the very next day, Southern legislatures could not wait to ratchet up their war on minority vote participation. Tennessee Republicans are apparently still squealing with delight. This session, they’re acting to kill voter registration drives that have historically increased minority participation in elections.

House Bill 1079 and Senate Bill 971 quash get-out-the-vote efforts by heaping legal obstacles and penalties upon the young men and women who walk the neighborhoods, encouraging new voters to register.

The bills require GOTV volunteers to register for state-sponsored training if they are attempting to collect more than 100 voter registration applications. They also require whatever voter applications volunteers collect to be sent in within 10 days, despite the ponderous size of many large, statewide registration efforts. The laws make these demands while forbidding volunteers to mail the applications—which could be an illegal request, all by itself.

Under these bills, a “Class 1 offense” is punishable by a $150 fine, up to a maximum of $2,000, in each county where the violation occurred. A “Class 2 offense” gets a civil penalty of up to $10,000, also, in each county where the violation occurred. Critics say this is a lot of risk to put on a lowly volunteer, and that legislators did that for a reason.

“At every turn, the bill’s provisions are both onerous and vague in their application, creating a significant chilling effect because groups will avoid conducting community-based drives to avoid the risk of being subject to the bill’s severe penalties,” stated a letter from nearly 20 pro-democracy organizations, including the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In addition, the mandatory training the bill imposes is never specified, nor created. There is no guarantee that state trainers will even make the training available outside of regular business hours through online or on-demand courses. Voter drive participants, by their nature, are charitable and sporadic. Many participants barely have the schedules to allow a weekend for neighborhood canvassing, much less the time to set aside to participate in a training course. These aren’t paid, professional canvassers; these are church and school group members with some free time on a Saturday.

The League of Women Voters of Tennessee numbers among the bills’ many critics, with LWVT President Marian Ott stating that “This draconian approach will make Tennessee the only state to criminalize the submission of voter registration forms.”

It is a woeful situation in a state that “already has one of the lowest percentages of registered voters in the country,” she added. Tennessee ranked 45th in citizens voting in the recent 2018 elections, she said, and in 2014, it hit near rock-bottom at No. 50.

League of Women Voters Vice-President Bebby Gould spoke with Lighthouse and urged Tennessee voters to flood the phone lines of senators and “urge them to vote against the bill.” This tactic may not deliver after the April 22 legislative vote, but Gould also directed citizens to target their concern at the office of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, who will be looking to sign the legislation when it crosses his desk.

The number to Lee’s office is 615-741-2001. Hitting that little Ext. 1 button and fussing into a recording might feel impotent, but those messages add up if enough callers get onboard, so don’t be shy, Tennesseans. Grab your phones.


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