Voter Registration Is Surging—So Republicans Want to Criminalize It

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Voting rights actvists in Nashville hold signs opposing a new law in Tennessee that imposes new restrictions on voter registration drives. 

The new face of voter suppression is also the oldest Jim Crow tactic on the books: Block voters from getting on the rolls to begin with.

In the wake of a midterm that saw surging turnout by non-white, young, and urban voters—all blocs that tend to favor Democrats—a backlash in GOP state legislatures was perhaps inevitable. What troubles voting rights advocates is that Republicans have now set out to penalize not just voters but the groups trying to register them, in some cases with astronomical fines and jail time that effectively criminalize civic engagement.

The most extreme example is a law newly enacted in Tennessee that imposes civil and criminal penalties, including fines of up to $10,000 or more and close to a year in jail, on organizers who submit incomplete registration forms, fail to participate in state-mandated trainings, or fail to submit forms within a ten-day window. The law violates both the First and the 14th Amendments, say civil rights advocates who have filed suit, and also runs afoul of the National Voter Registration Act.

“This seems like a new frontier, a concerning frontier, and one that should be nipped in the bud by the federal courts,” says Danielle Lang, co-director of the Campaign Legal Center’s voting rights and redistricting program. “Because this is the First Amendment at its core.” 

The Campaign Legal Center and allied voting and civil rights groups have filed suit on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee and other voter registration organizations. A second suit along similar lines has been filed by a coalition that includes the NAACP of Tennessee and the Equity Alliance, which helped spearhead a massive voter registration drive in the state last year. 

Tennessee has among the lowest voter turnout rates in the nation, but the Tennessee Black Voter Project brought together two-dozen grassroots and neighborhood groups to register some 90,000 voters of color last year, sending hundreds of volunteers to churches, laundromats, and grocery store parking lots. Turnout by non-white voters shot up by more than 13 points in Tennessee over the previous midterm, from 29.1 percent to 42.6 percent in 2018, according to Census Bureau data, fueling Democratic wins.

The new law’s critics say that explains why Republicans are so eager to crack down on voter registration groups. The law’s GOP authors argue that thousands of ineligible voters were erroneously registered, and that the new restrictions are needed to combat fraud. A Washington Post analysis found that the flood of registrations overwhelmed and imposed costs on state officials, but uncovered scant evidence of fraud. The real problem with the voter registration drive, say civil rights groups, is that it was too successful.

“People came out in large numbers in 2018, not just in Tennessee but across the nation,” says Charlane Oliver, co-founder and president of the Equity Alliance, which promotes civic engagement by communities of color. “Now you are seeing a push to find more creative ways to keep people from the ballot box.”

Indeed, some of the biggest spikes in voter turnout among voters of color last year were in the very same states that have sought, like Tennessee, to shut down massive voter registration drives. Non-white voter turnout jumped close to 16 points in Arizona, 15 points in Georgia, and 12 points in Texas, Census Bureau data show. All three states have, like Tennessee, advanced bills or policies that in one way or another make it harder for voters to get on the rolls.

The Arizona House this year passed a bill that makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by a $2,500 fine and six months in jail, to pay someone based on the number of voters they register. (Political parties are exempted.) Anyone who misses a ten-day deadline for submitting registration forms to the state would face four months in jail. The Arizona Senate failed to act on the bill before the end of the legislative session. 

Last year, Georgia’s “no match, no vote” rules sought to keep voters off the rolls based on typographical errors, but that provision was blocked in court. More recently, the head of the state’s ethics commission launched a broad probe that targets several groups that mobilized voters on behalf of Democrat Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost last year’s gubernatorial race to Republican Brian Kemp. 

Texas considered but did not pass a sweeping voter restriction bill that, among other provisions, threatened jail time for voters who made inadvertent errors filling out their registration forms. Texas already has some of the most severe limits on voter registration in the nation, including elaborate training, data entry and citizenship requirements, and criminal penalties for violators. 

A better answer to fraud concerns, say voting rights advocates, is automatic voter registration, which places voters immediately on the rolls when they interact with government agencies, and which has taken effect in more than a dozen states. The threat of steep fines and jail time will make registering voters simply too risky for most of the low-budget civic groups engaged in that work. But as with the poll taxes and literacy tests that once blocked African Americans from the rolls, that appears to be the point.

“These tactics aren’t new,” says Oliver, of the Equity Alliance. “They just look a little different. Same old tricks.”

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