Updated at 8:51 p.m. on Thursday, April 25, 2019, with more information.
NASHVILLE — The Tennessee Senate on Thursday passed legislation that could subject some large groups involved in voter registration efforts to civil — and possibly criminal — charges as well as fines if they submit too many incomplete or incorrect registration and pay canvassers based on how many people they register.
The bill has drawn fire from critics both within Tennessee and nationally. They charge it is a racist effort to suppress primarily black voters after what is said to be the most organized effort the state has seen during the 2018 election.
It passed the Republican-led Senate on a 25-6 vote. Minor differences adopted in the Senate means the previously passed House bill must go back to the lower chamber for agreement before it's sent to Republican Gov. Bill Lee.
Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett and his state election coordinator, Mark Goins, brought the bill to fellow Republicans in the legislature after what they said were massive problems in last November's election.
Both complained that organized groups, primarily the Tennessee Black Voter Project — which used paid workers and submitted 10,000 voter registrations forms in Shelby County — had submitted hundreds of incomplete and inaccurate forms and needed reining in.
The Tennessee Black Voter Project questions the bill's motivation, noting it signed up some 86,000 voters.
But Hargett and Goins say hundreds of forms weren't filled out properly or were incomplete, some with only a first name or even just a letter. There were duplicate names on different forms, the election officials say, charging the wide-open process could lead to fraud unless regulated.
During debate, Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, who is black, said the bill will have "a chilling effect out to our community when you say you're criminalizing voter register efforts."
Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, charged "this bill takes a bazooka to a fly. We're the first state in the country to pass this serious an effort with felony and civil penalties."
But Sen. Ed Jackson, R-Jackson, who carried the bill for Hargett, said it was necessary to ensure an orderly process and deter fraud.
Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville, agreed.
"We need to make sure all voter registration drives are done correctly," Massey said. "It's to try to clean up those who knowingly, intentionally are turning in fraudulent forms."
The legislation creates class A misdemeanors if groups knowingly or intentionally pay workers based on quotas and if they don't complete new mandated state training and enroll 100 or more voters. Another offense: failure to send completed forms by the deadline or within 10 days of a registration drive.
A class A misdemeanor carries penalties of to a year in jail and up to $2,500 in fines.
The state could also fine groups that submit 100 or more incomplete voter registration forms that lack a name, address, date of birth, declaration of eligibility or signature.
Penalties can soar to $10,000 per county where violations occur if more than 500 incomplete forms are submitted. It also bans out-of-state poll watchers.
The bill has drawn condemnation from the League of Women Voters of Tennessee as well as the Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. They say 100 or even 500 faulty forms may look large, but in a voter registration drive involving thousands of registration forms, it is a small percentage.
Noting that Tennessee ranks 45th nationally for voter registration, League of Women Voters of Tennessee President Marian Ott said in a statement "this legislation does a disservice to would-be voters by discouraging the important outreach efforts needed to change those statistics."
In fact, the League says, it's own operations could get hit on civil penalties. Ott recently testified before lawmakers that many groups believed they were required under law to turn in even partially completed forms because if they didn't, they could be accused of misleading would-be voters or worse.
Gov. Lee has not said what he intends to do when the bill hits his desk.
The bill is House Bill 1079.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.