Sohn: Contact state lawmakers today about voter suppression bills

Staff filephoto by Erin O. Smith / Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, right, shakes hands last July with then-Georgia gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp during a Georgia campaign stop at the Burr Performing Arts Park in Dalton.

You have to hand it to Tennessee's GOP: If Republicans in the General Assembly could turn back time to when women still couldn't vote and people of color were counted only as three-fifths of a person, the hands of our clocks would be turning counterclockwise at the speed of helicopter blades.

Last week, Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett's office pushed a new bill that would require groups leading voter registration efforts, such as the League of Women Voters and others, to potentially face criminal misdemeanor charges and fines up to $10,000 for submitting too many - 100 or more - incomplete forms. Incomplete as in when a new registrant is reluctant to put his or her Social Security number on a form handed to a stranger.

Wait. Isn't policing the validity of all of our voter registrations the job of election commissions around the state and Hargett's secretary of state office? So Hargett now wants to delegate that policing job to the League or to a church group or to a university or to any other group that helps sign up voters?

No. Pardon us for being cynical. We don't believe that's the real intention.

The real intention is to keep fewer people voting - especially women and people of color, who tend to vote Democratic.

It's voter suppression, but this time that suppression would be ratcheted up from would-be voters themselves to the churches, universities, nonprofits, political parties and others signing up those voters. It is suppression by wrongly putting those organizations at risk of criminal misdemeanor charges or fines or both.

Tequila Johnson, who helped manage the Tennessee Black Voter Project last year, told The Associated Press that the state hadn't seen a bill like this one advance "until we dared to register 86,000 black and brown people to vote [in Tennessee]. That screams racism."

Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, of Nashville, agreed and suggested that rather than the proposed restrictions, state leaders might actually try to make it easier to register in the state that ranked second to last in the nation last year for voter turnout and nearly as badly in voter registration.

"[I]f paper forms are too difficult, we should offer more digital options, such as same-day registration and automatic voter registration. Or we should fix our confusing forms," Cooper said. "It's like a new poll tax. How many jelly beans are in the jar? We have seen this movie before. This is a blatant attempt to suppress the vote further in Tennessee."

In a Friday op-ed in the Tennessean, Charlane Oliver, co-founder and board president of The Equity Alliance, noted that civic groups have been conducting voter registration drives for decades in Tennessee, and no one seemed to have a problem. "Yet, three months after black-led groups mobilized to register thousands of black voters, Hargett has conjured up legislation to carve out people that he does not want to vote," she wrote.

Hargett defends the bill, saying that in Shelby County, one organization turned in 10,000 forms on the final day of registration. In a recent op-ed published by the USA Today Network-Tennessee, Hargett said election administrators in Shelby and Davidson counties spent upwards of $200,000 and $35,000, respectively, to process the registration forms.

So? What if 10,000 people showed up to their election commission offices on the final day? Would he just decide to close the doors so there wouldn't be any last-day registrations or more money expended?

League of Women Voters of Tennessee President Marian Ott said in a statement Monday that her group "strongly opposes" the legislation, noting that though the bills appear to exempt volunteers, many voter registration drives - especially large ones - depend on a blend of paid staff and volunteers.

"This legislation would have a very negative and chilling impact on efforts to register citizens of color, youth and those living in poverty," she said. Submitting fraudulent voter registration forms already is against the law, she noted.

Contact your Tennessee lawmakers first thing this morning about this travesty - because there is no time to waste:

A Tennessee House committee already has passed the legislation, and the Senate version is on the agenda today for the Senate State and Local Government Committee, whose 2nd vice-chairman is our own Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga.

That all-white, nine-person Senate committee, by the way, includes just one Democrat and just one woman (another Republican).

Do nothing about this today and watch that clock hand spin backward.