NASHVILLE — A Tennessee Senate panel on Tuesday advanced a bill that could subject some large groups involved in voter registration efforts to civil and possibly even criminal charges as well as fines if they submit too many incomplete or incorrect registrations.
The GOP-led Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill on a 7-2 vote, despite concerns raised by the League of Women Voters. Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, voted for the bill.
Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a Republican, and his election coordinator, Mark Goins, brought the bill in response to problems they say erupted in 2018 fall elections in Davidson and Shelby counties and, to a lesser extent, in a number of other counties.
Goins said county election officials were deluged with tens of thousands of last-minute voter registration applications, including a large number of incomplete forms or forms containing wrong or false information. He's calling the bill an "election security" measure.
Some critics, however, charge Hargett's bill is an effort to "suppress" primarily black voters. Last week, Tequila Johnson, co-founder of The Equity Alliance, which was involved in registrations, charged during a news conference that "we have never seen a bill like this until we dared to register 86,000 black and brown people to vote. This screams racism."
Bill sponsor Sen. Ed Jackson, R-Jackson, who is carrying Hargett's measure, told Judiciary colleagues Tuesday that election officials in Shelby and Davidson counties "experienced a last-minute surge in voter applications, a large number of these were almost impossible to process."
Jackson said some groups waited until the final group to submit voter registration forms their canvassers had collected and "in many cases the groups had been holding onto these forms for weeks and sometimes even months."
Committee Chairman Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, said he had concerns over a number of the bill's provisions, including one that triggers the civil and possibly criminal penalties if more than 100 problematic registration forms are turned in by a group.
"Just to put this in sort of a statistical focus, the federal government says the error rate is about 8 percent," Dickerson said. "So statistically you could have some good actors trying to behave in a responsible manner who could get up to 11, 12 or 20 percent. It depends on their competence without any other compounding variables."
Opponents say if a group registers 10,000 voters as some groups say they did, the 100 problematic registrations would amount to just 1 percent and possibly have them facing prosecution on a Class A misdemeanor carrying up to a year in jail and up to $2,500 in fines.
Civil fines under the bill could go as high as $10,000.
Goins said in some cases, groups were turning in forms that only had a first name while others contained names of deceased persons or with wrong Social Security numbers. He also complained about some of the forms canvassers were using. Some of those involved in the effort said they were using federal forms.
"This is a problem we're seeking to solve," Goins told the panel as he stressed the need for election integrity. He later added that "if there's a weed out there you better snatch it up or that weed is going to grow."
Goins acknowledged he was not aware of any other states having such penalties, although he said some might have them.
The bill singles out groups that pay canvassers to search for and register voters. Critics say the canvassers are usually paid by each person they register.
Marian Ott, president of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee, which has conducted voter registration drives for decades, agreed with Goins there are problems. But she said an incorrectly filled out form doesn't mean malicious intent.
"We certainly agree with Coordinator Goins that it's a problem and we want to have correct voter registration forms," Ott said.
But Ott said "there's no way we can support legislation that imposes criminal and significant civil penalties on groups who try to register voters. We certainly appreciate the fact that volunteers have been exempted. We're not entirely sure it completely clears us, because sometimes we get grants to register voters."
Ott said the proposal would "intimidate those who do large-scale voter registration efforts." And she called those efforts "particularly important" in communities with low registration rates, including people of color, the young and the poor.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said he was worried the bill is "sort of breaking new ground," with Tennessee "becoming the first state to impose criminal and civil liability in this space."
The bill would apply to a person or organization that plans to conduct a registration drive in which 100 or more voter registration forms would be collected and which also pays individuals to collect the voter registration forms.
Groups would have to register with with the state coordinator of elections and workers receive training prior to conducting the drive.
Organizers would have to include the name, address, and contact phone for the person or organization, as well as the counties in which the drive will be held.
The person or organization would have to file a sworn statement that all state voter registration laws and procedures would be followed. Training materials would be developed by Goins' office "and may be offered online."
It also establishes a deadline to turn in registrations of either 10 days after a voter registration drive or no later than the voter registration deadline if the event is within 10 days of the deadline.
And the bill prohibits payments based on the number of voters a person registers and prohibits people or organizations conducting the drives to set quotas or minimums of forms collected by individuals.
The amended bill is SB971/HB 1079. Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, is the House sponsor. Rudd's bill is awaiting scheduling for floor action.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.