NASHVILLE — The Republican-led Tennessee House on Monday night approved a controversial bill imposing new requirements on some voter registration groups that could subject them to civil and possibly even criminal penalties and fines in cases where they submit too many problematic registrations.
House Bill 1079 passed in a 71-26 vote along party lines after a heated debate. It now goes to the Senate.
Pointing to confusion in the 2018 November election, when election officials in Memphis and Nashville were deluged with thousands of last-minute forms from organizers of voter registration drives, GOP proponents say the bill was brought to them by Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a Republican, to prevent a repeat of that chaos and its incomplete forms.
Democrats and others, however, charged that it is part of a continuing effort by Republicans to suppress voter turnout, especially for minorities in a state already known for having low voter registration and, at times, the worst voter turnout nationwide.
The bill makes it a class A misdemeanor for groups engaged in voter registration drives that pay canvassers based on signup quotas to knowingly or intentionally submit 100 or more incomplete or faulty forms, avoid new state training requirements or fail to submit completed forms within 10 days of registration drives or by the deadline.
Critics, including the League of Women Voters, have complained they could be impacted because of a bill provision that counts grant funding under the paid worker provisions.
"This bill strikes at the heart of voter registration efforts and seeks to criminalize people," charged Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, whose various efforts to amend the bill were repeatedly tabled. "We cannot continue down this path. We're not even being subtle any more."
Bill sponsor Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, countered that there was a "lot of misinformation put out from a lot of groups who really don't understand what the bill does."
Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said in a statement that "no other state imposes civil and criminal penalties on individuals, nonprofits, churches, businesses, student clubs, universities and others for submitting forms from registration drives that are deficient in some way."