When the General Assembly passed a controversial voter registration law earlier this year, Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Gov. Bill Lee issued similar statements lauding the legislators' work and paying routine homage to election integrity.
Aside from a lack of integrity in the making of that law, Hargett and Lee now face the possibility that it is doomed.
In pushing for enactment of the law Hargett told legislators that "we want every eligible Tennessean to vote [but] voter registration must be done... in a manner [that doesn't compromise] the security or integrity of elections."
Lee concurred, saying without evidence that the bill resulted from "circumstances... meant to create a lack of integrity in the voting process... and that's why I signed the bill." Obvious question: what "circumstances"?
The registration law resulted from a controversy that arose when the Tennessee Black Voter Project last year submitted some 10,000 voter registration forms, many of them flawed. That's not unusual, unfortunately. Despite training sessions, volunteer signup efforts can be needlessly complicated, leading to mistakes.
But members of the legislature's Republican super-majority responded with draconian legislation that if upheld will likely suppress minority voter participation in the 2020 elections.
Several organizations have sued to overturn the law, and on Monday, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger denied the state's attempt to dismiss the challenge. Her comments were ominous regarding the law's viability.
Noting that county election commissions must have the resources they need in conducting elections, she nevertheless added: "But restricting voter registration drives in order to try to preserve [the commissions' resources] is like poisoning the soil in order to have an easier harvest."
That could be read as a rebuke to Hargett, who argued — and Lee implicitly agreed — that the bill was not an attempt at voter suppression. That was at best disingenuous, at worst dishonest.
The law provides that the submission of more than 500 flawed voter registration forms could lead to charges of Class A misdemeanors, nearly a year in jail and fines up to $2,500.
By weaponizing the voter registration process, GOP legislators created fears of prosecution among minority volunteers. Left in place, the law would likely lead to fewer registration drives in minority neighborhoods — and thus a lower voter turnout in minority precincts.
It's easy to see the law as attempted voter suppression.
Lee can redeem himself when he presents his agenda for the 2020 legislative session by telling lawmakers to repeal the voter registration law and replace it with a simpler approach: Automatic Voter Registration (AVR).
In a recent study, a professor at Northern Illinois University analyzed states with the most dramatic shifts in ease-of-vote ranking — with a rank of 1 being easiest and 50 being most difficult — based on the Cost of Voting Index.
Tennessee's record is deplorable. In 1996 it posted a 10, an excellent score. By 2016, it had plummeted to 48 — second from worst in the nation. The Pew Election Performance Index, ranked Tennessee as next to last in voter turnout in 2016 and 45th in voter registration.
If Lee wants to improve Tennessee's ailing democracy, he must persuade lawmakers to approve an honest and non-punitive voter registration plan. AVR's success elsewhere suggests it would be ideal for Tennessee.
The eight states that have adopted AVR have seen a dramatic increase in voter registrations:
Alaska, 33.7%. California, 26.8%. Colorado, 16.0%. Oregon, 15.9%. Rhode Island, 47.4%. Vermont, 60.2%. Washington, DC, 9.4%.
Our next door neighbor, Georgia, posted an astonishing 93.7% increase.
It is impossible to have good governance without good leadership. If Lee and legislators decide to provide it, they can reinvigorate Tennessee's democratic performance in 2020.
Michael Loftin is the former opinion page editor of The Chattanooga Times.