NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Charlane Oliver didn’t expect her efforts to register thousands of black and brown Tennesseans to vote would lead to one of the most restrictive voter registration laws in the country.
But less than a year after a coalition of groups, led by the nonprofit Tennessee Black Voter Project, conducted a statewide voter registration drive that accumulated 91,000 applications, activists like her face a daunting obstacle: A new state law that seeks to curb mass voter registration efforts by imposing criminal and financial penalties for turning in error-filled forms or failing to register with the state and undergo training.
The new Tennessee law has nonprofits and voting rights activists scrambling ahead of the 2020 presidential election, as they attempt to understand new regulations that could lead to thousands of dollars in fines and even jail time.
“It’s going to be extremely difficult to get people registered to vote,” said Oliver, a co-founder and board president of the Equity Alliance, a nonprofit that partnered with the Tennessee Black Voter Project to register tens of thousands of voters outside churches, laundromats and grocery stores.
“That’s voter suppression,” Oliver added, as her two-month-old son Micah quietly slept beside her inside a North Nashville soul food restaurant. “It is absolutely designed to hurt our community and hurt our efforts to register people.”
The new law, which goes into effect Oct. 1, came after a massive influx of voter registration applications before the 2018 midterm elections left local election officials struggling to add new voters to the rolls and to reach out to residents who submitted incomplete or incorrect personal information. Some of those officials suspected voter fraud, alleging that canvassers filled in false information on forms and registered felons to vote to meet supposed quotas.
Republican legislators, backed by some of those officials, passed the new law in April. Just one Republican voted against it. No Democrats voted for the bill.
Jeff Roberts, the elections administrator for Davidson County, which includes Nashville, said the new law is not designed to suppress voting. If registrations are incomplete, he said, residents risk having to fill out a provisional ballot or be turned away on Election Day. Instead, the goal is to ensure there are more accurate applications.
“Our biggest challenge is trying to protect the voter,” Roberts said. “Bottom line, because we’re in the business of registering people to vote.”
But with its new training requirements and potential criminal penalties, the Tennessee law could hurt voter registration drives on college campuses, said Erika Burnett, the regional program manager with the nonprofit Andrew Goodman Foundation, which gives stipends to “student ambassadors” at 13 schools across the South for on-campus civic engagement.
Based in Nashville, Burnett already has seen campus leaders at the historically black Tennessee State University nervous about expanding registration efforts.
“The disenfranchisement is real,” she said.
National voter registration organizers also are scared to conduct new registration drives at Tennessee music festivals such as Bonnaroo because of penalties associated with the new state law, according to a June report from the Tennessean. Groups like the national nonprofit HeadCount have been registering new voters at the Manchester, Tennessee-based event since 2004.
These concerns have been echoed by Democrats and voting rights activists nationwide as some Republican state lawmakers continue to tighten election laws, saying they are worried about voter fraud. The fight over ballot access has ramped up as the 2020 presidential election approaches.
Republican lawmakers in two other states came close to adopting similar restrictions to voter registration drives this last legislative session, but only Tennessee’s passed. In 2011, Florida approved restrictions to third-party voter registration drives, but a federal judge blocked parts of the law he deemed onerous, such as a “harsh and impractical” 48-hour deadline to turn in registration forms to the state that could result in fines.
A bill in Arizona this year would have criminalized paying canvassers to register voters. While it passed in the state House in March, it died later in the state Senate. In Texas, a bill that would have enacted felony penalties for voters who provide false information on voter registration forms also died.
But in Tennessee, organizations that pay canvassers could face a $2,000 fine for every county where they turn in more than 100 deficient forms. If more than 500 forms are deficient, the fine climbs to $10,000 per county. The Tennessee Black Voter Project, which paid its canvassers hourly, would be eligible for this new penalty.
Further, officials with groups that pay canvassers based on a quota system could face up to a year in prison. The law also requires all organizations that hold voter registration drives to register with the secretary of state’s office and undergo official training. If they don’t, group leaders could face a year in prison.
“I didn’t expect to be possibly jailed for this,” Oliver said. “It just takes me back to the civil rights movement. No one should have to go to jail for registering people to vote, but I will if I have to.”
Tennessee election officials are crafting new guidelines and a framework for training groups and canvassers on registering voters. Secretary of State Tre Hargett told Stateline that guidelines “are moving forward,” but would not share any further details about implementation. He has until Oct. 1 to set those guidelines, but voting rights advocates worry the state won’t launch a proper public information campaign when that happens, causing further confusion.
The law faces legal challenges from several civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the League of Women Voters of Tennessee, leaving its future even murkier.
In his Davidson County Election Commission office with tan walls and mismatched furniture, Roberts keeps in a packed drawer behind his paper-strewn desk around 250 registration forms that came in before the 2018 midterms riddled with false personal information.
Flipping through the forms last week, the soft-spoken public servant with a Southern drawl pointed out the errors: incorrect Social Security numbers, mismatched signatures, a Social Security number that belonged to someone else, and so on. Many people listed on these forms, he said, might not even be real, but merely made up by canvassers to meet alleged quotas.
A “hardcore person,” he said, would call this voter fraud.
He doesn’t think there was criminal intent. Instead, he suspects some canvassers were paid on a quota system and had “an incentive to fudge a little bit” by filling in false information.
Oliver of the Equity Alliance said there was never a quota system at the Tennessee Black Voter Project. The group had guidelines for canvassers, she said, such as knocking on 15 doors in an hour.
Local election officials were not ready for the wave of new registration forms. Last November’s election was like nothing Roberts and other Tennessee officials had ever experienced.
The Volunteer State is not known for robust voter turnout. According to the Election Data & Science Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tennessee ranks near the bottom of U.S. states in election performance — 49th in voter turnout and 45th in voter registrations.
But voters came out in droves for the 2018 midterms, inspired by competitive gubernatorial and Senate races and a supercharged national political climate surrounding Donald Trump’s presidency. The midterm voter turnout rate of 54% was the highest it had been since 1994, when the state began tracking that data. Nearly 2.3 million Tennesseans cast ballots.
Among black voters in Tennessee, turnout rose from 31% in 2014 to 44% in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Efforts by groups including the Tennessee Black Voter Project clearly had an effect.
That enthusiasm was evident in the runup to the election, when tens of thousands of new voter registrations flowed into county election offices across the state.
Starting in July and continuing to the Oct. 9 registration deadline, Roberts’ office received around 2,500 new registrations every month. By the end, his office took in around 12,000 new registration forms from the Tennessee Black Voter Project. Around half of those had some problem, he said, including missing or incorrect information.
Without enough staff to handle the high volume of registrations, Roberts had finance staff, warehouse workers and poll workers help sort through applications and write handwritten notes to voters asking for missing information. He was concerned that accurate applications wouldn’t be entered into the state database in time for Election Day. The long hours took a toll on his staff, he said.
In Shelby County, which surrounds Memphis, the project submitted 35,000 registration applications between July and October — 10,000 of which came in on the last day. Linda Phillips, the county’s elections administrator, told Stateline in November that she suspected “thousands and thousands of those applications were fictitious.”
Oliver questioned the accuracy of counties’ numbers, saying officials have exaggerated in the past. But she couldn’t explain why anyone would put false information on a voter registration form. Tennessee’s voting laws are some of the strictest in the country, including requiring an ID to vote and banning former felons from voting, making any fraudulent effort difficult.
Instead, she suspects, residents filling out forms may have been confused by what she called a burdensome and complicated application with different colors, typefaces and easy-to-miss boxes, such as ones asking “Miss/Mrs./Mr.”
“When you’re working with those kinds of numbers, you’re naturally going to get some errors,” she said. “You can’t expect us to be perfect and get 100 percent correct.”
This new law could add some important parameters for people who want to conduct voter registration drives, said Shanna Singh Hughey, president of ThinkTennessee, a Nashville-based nonpartisan think tank. Now they know when they must turn in forms, she said, and have more direction about what needs to be on those forms.
“I believe that voter registration organizations are trying to do the right thing,” she said. “It’s such a sacred act to register folks to vote. Now they know, to some extent, the rules that they have to follow and that’s good.”
Still, Hughey fears that the lack of clarity in the law’s implementation and the potential criminal penalties might have unintended consequences and might keep people from registering voters.
The new law now faces two federal lawsuits from voting rights groups accusing the state of voter suppression.
The day Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed the measure into law in May, a coalition of nonprofit organizations, including the Equity Alliance, the NAACP and the Andrew Goodman Foundation, sued state election officials in federal court.
Maxim Thorne, managing director of the Andrew Goodman Foundation, a nonprofit named after a young civil rights activist killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964 for trying to register black people to vote, said the new Tennessee law is an “unprecedented” and “unconstitutional” attack on low-income, minority voting rights.
“It’s one of the worst attempts to chill and threaten people of color and young people and their efforts to increase registration and turnout,” he said. “We want to make sure that in places like Tennessee, with its history of discrimination, we can counter these unlawful acts.”
Hargett, a defendant in the lawsuit as secretary of state and one of the fiercest advocates for this new law, would not comment on the lawsuit. Pressed on the concerns about the legislation last week at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures, Hargett was brief and would not get into specifics.
“We want to make sure the people that want to get registered are able to get registered,” he told Stateline.
During debate on the legislation, Hargett wrote in a March op-ed for the Tennessean that groups that register large numbers of voters “potentially put legitimate voter registrations at risk” and “might be motivated more by money.”
Hargett also is named in another federal lawsuit, filed in May by the League of Women Voters of Tennessee and several other organizations, over the same legislation.
Until the cases are resolved, activists such as Oliver remain unsure what voter registration efforts will look like ahead of the 2020 election. If groups like hers were to attempt widescale registration drives, she expects she’ll need a lawyer on retainer to ensure they work within the new parameters of the law.
“We’re going to comply with the law,” she said. “But we’re going to continue what we’ve been doing. We’re going to put up the numbers.”
Roberts, the Davidson County elections administrator, said groups that want to mount a voter registration drive should visit his office for help.
“We want you to be successful,” he said. “That’s our goal. If there’s some idea that we’re suppressing the vote, the only way for you to fix that is registering to vote.”
Those groups will have to act soon. With a 30-day statewide cutoff for voter registration, if residents want to cast a ballot in the March 3 Democratic presidential primary, they’ll have to register by early February — just four months into the new law’s implementation.