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Federal judge blocks Tennessee's punitive voter registration law


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A federal judge has blocked Tennessee's new restrictions for registering voters from taking effect on Oct. 1, saying Thursday that any benefit of the law won't likely outweigh its potential harm.

The ruling, for now, sets aside a law that goes beyond other states by fining groups that pay workers when too many incomplete registration forms are submitted. The law would also criminalize intentional infractions of a new set of rules, exposing voting advocates to misdemeanor charges.

Voter registration groups who sued said the law has already curtailed their ability to enroll voters in communities of color and other historically disenfranchised groups.

U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger picked apart the law in an order earlier this week, saying efforts to restrict voter registration drives to try to preserve election commission resources are akin to "poisoning the soil in order to have an easier harvest." She offered more stern criticisms as she moved Thursday to stop the law before its effective date while federal challenges proceed.

"There is simply no basis in the record for concluding that the Act will provide much benefit to Tennesseans, and even less reason to think that any benefit will come close to outweighing the harms to Tennesseans (and non-Tennesseans) who merely wish to exercise their core constitutional rights of participating in the political process by encouraging voter registration," Trauger wrote as she approved the preliminary injunction.

Under the new law, the state can 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 bill also outlaws out-of-state poll watchers.

Two legal challenges of the law are ongoing in federal court on behalf of groups involved in voter registration in a state with low marks for voter participation.

"This decision allows our clients to continue their important work of registering voters — including those who have been historically disenfranchised — this election season," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, one of the groups that helped file one lawsuit. "We look forward to the day when this unconstitutional law can be struck down for good."

In response, Attorney General Herbert Slatery's office said it disagrees "with both the conclusion and the analysis of the order and will meet with our client to determine what steps to take next."

In support of the law, Republican Secretary of State Hargett's office has said that many of the 10,000 registrations submitted in and around Memphis last year by the Tennessee Black Voter Project on the last day for registering were filled out incorrectly.

Hargett, in turn, has argued that adding the penalties bolsters election security. Asked for a comment on the injunction, Hargett's office did not directly address the decision.

"Our goal is to properly register voters and make sure Tennesseans know their votes matter," Tennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins said in an emailed response. "We have worked with the Tennessee legislature to make it extremely easy to register to vote. One of the best ways to register to vote is online at GoVoteTN.com."

Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who signed the law, said Thursday said the restrictions were intended to "create free and fair elections and make sure we don't clog the system."

"There were obvious attempts to impact elections in a negative way and this was meant to stop that from happening," Lee told reporters. "I think the intent of the law was good. Obviously, it will be determined by the courts whether or not that law will stand up."

Only paid groups could be penalized under the law, though the legal filings contend the distinction is murky due to the groups' use of grant money and stipends for workers in certain cases.

The judge also wrote that the law's requirement to hand in forms within 10 days, coupled with penalties for incomplete forms, put voter registration groups in a "double bind."

"By imposing the 10-day requirement, the Act is also, by necessity, requiring people and organizations to turn in applications that they know to be incomplete," Trauger wrote. "The Act, therefore, punishes a person or organization for doing too much of something that it requires them to do."

And because the law imposes penalties in each county where too many incomplete forms are submitted, the law "falls hardest not on bad actors but on organizations with the most ambitious and inclusive voter registration efforts," the judge wrote.

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