It has never been easier to register to vote in Tennessee despite assertions made in a guest commentary by Michael Loftin on The Chattanooga Times editorial page last Saturday, "State GOP leaders try to weaponize voter registration."
It is ludicrous to say the GOP is weaponizing voter registration when we have made it much easier for citizens to register to vote. The GOP-led Tennessee Online Voter Registration law, enacted by the General Assembly in 2016, put into place an easy and secure way to register to vote or submit a change in status. Citizens can access it on their cellphone, tablet or laptop at govotetn.com.
The online system also makes it easier for organizations to register voters. Despite this fact, thousands upon thousands of written forms filed in Tennessee in 2018 by organizations paid to register voters were duplicates, deficient or ineligible. Some forms just had parts of names on them, one of with only the letter "W." Others lacked an address for election officials to follow up with the voter to complete the registration. In other instances, forms were submitted on behalf of the same person on different days with different addresses. Even a deceased person was found among the written voter forms.
This is unacceptable and would not have occurred with the online registration system, which requires all information be provided in order to submit the form. An incomplete written voter registration form doesn't penalize election officials; it hurts the person who goes to the polls believing they are properly registered. It also enables fraud. Every fraudulent vote disenfranchises one cast legitimately, undermining the integrity of our elections, which is paramount to our system of government for which so many Americans fought and died.
It is misleading to say that minority volunteers could face misdemeanor penalties and fines for submitting high volumes of incomplete forms. The law does not target volunteers — the key word is volunteers. It applies to individuals or organizations receiving pay for registering voters who are grossly and repeatedly negligent in turning in the required forms. This new law applies to Republicans, Democrats and independents, regardless of ethnicity.
In addressing Michael Loftin's argument for Automatic Motor Voter Registration (AVR), states using this system have reported many problems. Under the AVR system, anyone who interacts with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is registered to vote. There have been massive voter registration errors made by DMVs in multiple states. For example, in California, almost 100,000 errors were found in the first three months. In fact, most duplicate voter registrations in these states were received at the DMV. It is not surprising that given these problems, voter turnout in AVR states has not necessarily increased.
No one disagrees with the fact that we need to improve voter participation in Tennessee. Over the past few years, Secretary of State Tre Hargett, whose department oversees elections, has worked in concert with local election officials to promote registration, especially among young adults. Those efforts include mock elections, teacher workshops on civic engagement, essay contests, and voter registration drives at Tennessee high schools, colleges and universities.
Those efforts worked. As a result, we set records for voter turnout in a non-presidential year last August and November. Even though during these elections we had more registered voters than at any time in state history, rest assured that we won't stop there. We still have much work to do and will continue to look for ways to register new voters and increase turnout.
These efforts do not have to come at the expense of the integrity of our elections. The new law will help ensure that when voters go to the polls, they are properly registered and that each vote counts.
Todd Gardenhire is a Republican state senator representing parts of Hamilton and Bradley counties.