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Voter registration groups join call to block Tennessee law

September 2, 2019

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Seven groups that conduct voter registration drives have asked a federal judge to stop a new Tennessee law that threatens them with fines and criminal prosecution for failing to comply with a slew of new regulations.

The motion for a preliminary injunction, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Nashville, claims the law “undermines democratic principles.”

Among the plaintiffs are the League of Women Voters of Tennessee, the American Muslim Advisory Council, the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, Rock the Vote, the Memphis Central Labor Council and HeadCount.

Several other organizations filed a similar motion in federal court two weeks ago. In both cases, the plaintiffs want U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger to stop the law from going into effect in October by putting it on hold it until their lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the new law can be decided.

Citing U.S. Census data, plaintiffs say nearly 40 percent of Tennesseans who are eligible to vote are unregistered. The new law would severely curtail the groups’ ability to register new voters, they claim.

The law would affect the groups in several ways. It requires organizations holding voter registration drives to register with the state and ensure that every person participating in the drive completes training by the state’s Coordinator of Elections. Failure to do so could result in criminal prosecution.

The law also imposes fines on groups turning in 100 or more incomplete applications within one year. Penalties can reach $10,000 per county where violations occur if more than 500 incomplete forms are submitted.

Groups of unpaid volunteers are not subject to those rules, but the plaintiffs claim the law does not specify whether that applies to groups that receive grants or use paid staff to train and manage volunteers.

Voter registration groups must also include a disclaimer with any “public communication regarding voter status” that the “communication is not made in conjunction with or authorized by the secretary of state.”

Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett has previously argued that adding penalties will bolster election security. In pushing for the bill, Hargett’s office pointed to 10,000 registrations submitted in and around Memphis last year by the Tennessee Black Voter Project on the last day for registering, noting that many were filled out incorrectly.

The state has until next Monday to file its response.

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