Tennessee is trying to expand upon the tactics used by Republican-controlled states to encourage voter suppression.
A new state law would limit the ability of third-party groups to register voters in Tennessee. Third-party voter registration occurs when a person, entity or organization solicits or encourages others to register people to vote.
The law was passed after the Tennessee Black Voter project submitted 86,0000 new voter registrations procured from Shelby County, where Memphis sits. The state rejected half the forms and passed the GOP-backed legislation, which a federal judge temporarily blocked pending legal challenges.
Under the new law, heavy fines would be imposed on organizations that submit incomplete or incorrect forms, and misdemeanor sanctions ($2,500 fine or one year in jail) are aimed at groups that pay workers to encourage voter participation.
If it goes forward, the law will likely, in advance of the 2020 election, keep groups like the Black Voter Project from registering voters in states where registration in marginalized communities is low.
Nationwide, nearly a quarter of citizens eligible to vote are unregistered. Expansion of the voting rolls to include former non-voters has made a significant difference in recent presidential elections. The Republican Party knows that Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 was in part because young black voters — black women in particular — turned out in greater proportional numbers than any other sociopolitical group.
Republicans do not want to see that happen again.
It is not unusual for states to adopt laws that have been passed in other states, and so it concerns me that other Republican-controlled states, like Georgia, where I now live, might adopt similar laws.
Over the past 15 years, states controlled by the current president’s party have established a bevy of barriers to exclude voters from the polls, including voter ID laws, closing polling places, purging voter rolls, limiting absentee and provisional ballots, and enacting other measures designed to negatively impact poor, minority and older voters — all groups who tend to vote Democratic.
These provisions have had a negative impact on voter access. In Georgia, a combination of these barriers resulted in a Republican being elected governor; but without voter suppression tactics, the seat would have gone to Democrat Stacey Abrams.
Historically, it was third-party voter registration work that opened up the polls as part of the civil rights movement. Members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee never had as much success with registration as they hoped, but their canvassing, information-sharing and efforts to normalize electoral engagement by blacks provided a foundation for the reforms that opened the franchise to black voters denied the right to vote for almost 100 years.
Tennessee seems to recognize that third-party voter registration efforts are extremely important to access for the Democratic party. Because groups like the League of Women Voters, Souls to the Polls and the Georgia New Voting project work at the grassroots level, they are able to imbue confidence in apathetic potential voters, provide electoral information and register people to vote.
If a change in presidential leadership is going to be achieved in 2020, it’s going to require an all-hands-on deck approach. The fact is, the current president has significant support from his base, including constituents who don’t benefit from his policies. A 2016 Pew research poll shows that the Republican party “holds a sizable advantage in leaned in party affiliation among white voters.”
For the sake of our democracy, we need to oppose anti-third-party registration legislation. The stakes are high.