Tennessee has a 78.52% registration rate. Although it is a passing grade, Tennessee ranks 45th among the 50 US states for the voter registration rate.
A bill currently being passed by the Tennessee legislature would impose new restrictions on groups that organize voter registration campaigns and expose them to jail time and heavy fines.
Under one of the provisions, individuals or organizations submitting 100 to 500 "deficient" applications, that is incomplete or containing incorrect information, could be fined from $ 150 to $ 2,000. Submitting over 500 "deficient" forms could result in a fine of up to $ 10,000.
The forms will have to be delivered or mailed within 10 days of their collection or before the registration deadline of the state electors. Tennessee deletes voter registration 30 days before polling day.
The bill would also make it more difficult to organize a voter registration campaign.
Prior to organizing a campaign, an organization registering 100 or more people should: Communicate to the county election coordinator the contact information of the people conducting the campaign, inform the coordinator of the location of the campaign, complete Voter registration training provided by the Election Co-ordinator and file an affidavit stating that he will abide by all the laws and procedures of voter registration.
Violating any of these rules "intentionally and knowingly" would constitute a class A offense – the most serious offense, punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days of imprisonment. imprisonment and / or a fine of up to $ 2,500.
The rules would not apply to volunteers who register voters or to organizations that rely solely on volunteers to register their electors. But the law is vague about what organizations consider to have paid staff.
In the State Senate of Tennessee, the bill was referred to a local committee and a state committee and was referred to the calendar committee for scheduling. In the House of Representatives, it has been considered by committees and is on the agenda of April 15.
Specialists and civil rights groups alarm
"We are striving to register Tennesseans to vote, but this must be done responsibly and in a manner that does not compromise election security," wrote Hargett. "Groups seeking to register a large number of voters, while they usually do so with good intentions, can potentially jeopardize legitimate voter registration."
But experts and civil rights groups say the law targets communities deprived of their rights and says it would be a deterrent to those trying to help others vote.
"Voter registration campaigns have long been used to empower historically voidless communities, including students, immigrants, people of color and the elderly," CNN Director Hedy Weinberg told CNN. Executive of the American Union of Civil Liberties of Tennessee. "This legislation would prevent access to the vote and undermine civic engagement."
Sekou Franklin, a professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University, called the bill "draconian" and said it was a response to the increased mobilization of Afro voters. Americans in the last elections.
"You do not jail people who try to participate politically in a democratic way, unless you have other motives," Franklin said.
Franklin said he was worried that individuals and organizations could potentially incur fines for inconsistencies or errors in voter registration forms.
"There are still poor applications," Franklin said. "If you are an organization and you register three or four thousand voters, and you have 100 nominations on hold, it could cost $ 10,000 – it's a rate of 1%."
In his editorial, Hargett wrote that deficient applications cost the state's two largest counties thousands of dollars in taxpayer dollars. In Shelby County, the election administrator estimated the cost at over $ 200,000. In Davidson County, the administrator stated that processing and editing forms with little information cost $ 35,000.
Hargett also cited a last-minute increase in the number of applications for voter registration to justify the requirement to submit forms within 10 days of being collected.
Activist calls bill a direct attack
Tequila Johnson says the bill is a direct attack on the work done by the Tennessee Black Voter Project, for which she held the position of state-wide manager in the last election. The project was a coordinated effort of several organizations and submitted about 90,000 applications for voter registration last year. He also focused on voter education and coalition building.
"This project has brought to light very big issues here in the state, and brought together many people, from political parties to one another, from different races," she said. "And personally, I think it's a threat to what our state represents right now."
Even if the bill could subject her to fines and other consequences if passed, Johnson would not stop him from working on voter registration.
"It would be cowardly for me to give up now because Tre Hargett wants to find a way to permanently oppress young people, people of color, the voting rights of women and the elderly."
The Hargett office has not yet answered a phone call to comment.
Madeline Holcombe of CNN contributed to this report.