Friday, April 12, 2024

New Tennessee bill aims to restrict activity of independent voter registration organizations

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Featured photo by Austin Lewis

Story by Hannah Ferreira

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A new bill introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly could significantly impact the way independent voter registration groups operate within the state and potentially discourage their operation.

The bill would require any organization that registers new voters to re-register with the coordinator of elections for every election cycle that they intend to operate, provide information like the names and permanent or temporary addresses of anyone in the organization collecting voter registrations, and certify that nobody handling them has been convicted of a felony.

If these organizations allow someone convicted of a felony to handle voter registration forms or tamper with the information on the forms, the state election office could fine them up to $5,000.

It is sponsored by Rutherford County resident and Middle Tennessee State University alumnus Tim Rudd in the Tennessee House of Representatives. 

The state of Tennessee is already well-known for its voting laws. The Tennessee Secretary of State’s website says it is “easy to vote and hard to cheat” because of many restrictions intended to protect election integrity and prevent fraud. These multitudes of protections led to the Heritage Foundation ranking Tennessee first in the nation for election integrity.

However, there is great controversy over whether these laws do more than just protect election integrity and discourage residents from participating in the democratic process.

Republican lawmakers in the state have faced criticism from civil rights groups as well as their Democratic colleagues for implementing restrictions that restrict felons attempting to regain their right to vote and for policies that disproportionately affect Black Tennesseans.

If House Bill 1955 sees the floor of the House and Senate and faces no fiscal or logistical issues, it will likely pass the GOP supermajority.  It would take effect on November 6, 2024, “the public welfare requiring it.”

Its passage could significantly affect MTSU’s own American Democracy Project. 

Much of ADP’s focus in the fall is registering students to vote. They are careful to ensure that all the forms are filled out, collected, and turned in with integrity and care. 

However, Dr. Mary Evins, the faculty advisor for the club and Research Professor in the history department is concerned about the intent of this bill.

“It kills the principle of citizens helping citizens” and “threatens grassroots efforts to energize fellow Tennesseans to access the ballot,” she said in an interview on Thursday.

A similar state law was passed in 2019 but was blocked by U.S. District Judge Aleta A. Trauger because there was “simply no basis” for believing that it would benefit Tennesseans and instead would hamper free speech.

The League of Women Voters is a “non-partisan, grassroots organization” that, among other things, often works in their local chapters to register voters. It operates in many states including Tennessee and would be affected by this law if it passes.

In 2023, the Florida chapter of League of Women Voters sued because the state legislature passed a law highly similar to the one sitting on Tennessee General Assembly committees now.

Their webpage on the topic claims that the time it would take to ensure chapters could operate under these new regulations would “severely burden” their organization and “curtail its voter registration activities.”

Tennessee’s similar bill has yet to be placed on the calendar for the House or Senate committee, but it would likely face similar scrutiny if signed into law.

Hannah Ferreira is a contributing writer for MTSU Sidelines.

To contact News Editor Alyssa Williams and Assistant News Editor Zoe Naylor, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

For more news, visit www.mtsusidelines.com, and follow us on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on X and Instagram at @mtsusidelines. Also, sign up for our weekly newsletter here.

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