NASHVILLE - Tennessee lawmakers on Wednesday introduced a new proposal to amend the state's legally contentious voter-registration restrictions that are currently blocked from being enforced during the 2020 elections.
Last year, Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed GOP-backed legislation that made Tennessee the first state in the country to fine registration groups for turning in too many incomplete signup forms. It also criminalized intentional infractions of other new rules with misdemeanor charges.
However, the law immediately prompted two lawsuits and sparked national criticism from those who argued that the law would suppress efforts to register minorities and other voters.
A federal judge later blocked the implementation of the law as it awaits trial in February 2021, saying the law would have a "chilling effect" on organizations and individuals seeking to register voters.
In the interim, Tennessee lawmakers on Wednesday decided to once again back new rules on how to sign up new voters.
The latest version would require the state to offer voluntary training on voter registration laws and require voter registration applications be submitted within 15 days of a voter registration drive. The measure would then prohibit the retention of voter information for non-political purposes, as well as require "cybersecurity to be considered" when certifying a voter registration system.
"In the face of the federal injunction, these protections are better than no protection at all," wrote Secretary of State Tre Hargett in a recent letter to lawmakers.
Hargett, who had previously argued the original 2019 voter registration law would bolster election security, is submitting a separate bill this year that will criminalize "intentional dissemination of misinformation" surrounding the qualifications to vote, voter registration requirements, voter eligibility, and polling dates, times and locations.
Under that proposal, it would also be a felony to tamper with voting systems, gain unauthorized access to voter registration databases, "willfully" substitute fake election results and "intentionally deface" an election website.
The proposals submitted Wednesday were both approved by the House Elections and Campaign Finance Subcommittee after almost no discussion or opposition. The bills must now pass the full House Local Committee before they can head to the House floor for consideration.
If approved, the proposals would go into effect immediately — likely after Tennessee's March 3 presidential primary, but ahead of the August state primary election.
"Penalizing voter registration drives was a bad idea in the first place," said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Democrat from Nashville. "It was predictably blocked in court because the legislature acted too rashly and thoughtlessly. We shouldn't repeat the mistake by rushing through some fix without input from the civic groups affected."
However, at least one group who sued the state over the voter registration law described Wednesday's changes as "encouraging."
"It appears our litigation had an impact," said Kristen Clarke, executive director of the National Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "Preliminary review suggests the problem that led us to sue has been addressed."
In 2019, Tennessee lawmakers backed a measure allowing the state to fine groups if they submit 100 or more voter registration forms within a calendar year that lack a complete name, address, date of birth, declaration of eligibility and signature. Penalties can reach $10,000 per county where violations occur if more than 500 incomplete forms are submitted. The measure went on to outlaw out-of-state poll watchers.
The misdemeanor penalties would kick in if groups intentionally turn in forms after new deadlines, pay people based on quotas, fail to fill out state registration, don't undergo training, and more.
Only paid groups could be penalized under the law, though the groups' legal filings contend the distinction is murky due to their use of grant money and stipends for workers in certain cases.