NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Groups that help register Tennessee voters could face fines or misdemeanors if they violate new restrictions in a bill advancing through the Legislature.
The legislation is drawing a stark divide between some voting rights groups, which have deemed the bill a voter suppression attempt, and Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett's office, which is backing the bill in part to avoid a repeat of the flood of often-faulty registrations that Shelby County saw on last year's deadline.
Republican Rep. Tim Rudd's bill calls for class A misdemeanors if, knowingly or intentionally, groups that register 100 or more people pay workers based on voter-registration quotas, don't complete state training, or fail to ship completed voter registration forms within 10 days of registration drives or by the voter registration deadline.
The state could also fine groups that submit 100 or more deficient voter registration forms under the bill. Those that submit more than 500 deficient forms could face penalties up to $10,000 in each county where a violation occurred.
As the bill advanced past its first House panel last week, State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins lamented that about 10,000 Shelby County registrations, many filled out incorrectly, came in from the Tennessee Black Voter Project on last year's deadline.
Goins said many of the registrations included incorrect, incomplete or duplicate information, ineligible felons, deceased people and other problems. The scenario erupted in a testy lawsuit in the weeks before Election Day.
The Shelby issues caused by the forms cost more than $200,000, while similar issues in Nashville's Davidson County cost about $35,000, Hargett has said.
"It became a situation that it was very dangerous for other individuals who were properly trying to register because we were backlogged and because we were in court trying to focus on those individuals," Goins said.
But voting rights groups, Democratic lawmakers and other opponents call the proposal voter suppression, saying churches, universities, nonprofits, political parties and others that help sign up voters would be wrongly put at risk of criminal charges or fines under the bill.
Tequila Johnson, who helped manage the Tennessee Black Voter Project last year, said the state hadn't seen a bill like it advance "until we dared to register 86,000 black and brown people to vote (in Tennessee). That screams racism."
Instead of the proposed restrictions, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville suggested that "if paper forms are too difficult, we should offer more digital options, such as same-day registration and automatic voter registration. Or we should fix our confusing forms."
"It's like a new poll tax," Cooper said of the bill. "How many jelly beans are in the jar? We have seen this movie before. This is a blatant attempt to suppress the vote further in Tennessee."