On Monday, Judge Aleta A. Trauger for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee issued a decision denying the state of Tennessee’s request to dismiss a legal challenge to a new state law that would restrict and penalize voter registration efforts. The law, which is scheduled to go into effect on October 1, would impose substantial penalties on groups that foster political participation through voter registration efforts.
The legal challenge to the law, which will now proceed, was filed by Campaign Legal Center (CLC), the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, the ACLU Foundation of Tennessee, Fair Elections Center and the law firm of Sherrard Roe Voigt & Harbison on behalf of League of Women Voters of Tennessee, American Muslim Advisory Council, Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, Memphis Central Labor Council, HeadCount, and Rock the Vote. These civic organizations have actively engaged in voter registration and mobilization in Tennessee in the past and intend to continue doing so—assuming they can still do so with this law on the books.
“Tennessee’s law has created the country’s most aggressive penalties for voter registration drives,” said Danielle Lang, co-director, Voting Rights and Redistricting, Campaign Legal Center. “Now the court will have the opportunity to issue a ruling that prevents the state from unlawfully chilling the efforts of organizations working to get people registered to vote. Voter registration drives for years have been away for historically marginalized groups to empower their communities and gain access to the ballot box. With today’s decision, we are optimistic about our ability to protect that tradition against government threats of fines and jail time.” Judge Trauger noted in her decision that “in the American system of governance, every decision to grant, preserve, or take away a right can be traced back to an election. A change in the composition of the electorate can lead to the change of any law.”
She pointed specifically to the continued challenges faced by the state’s voters, as the number of registered voters in Tennessee still lags behind the number of qualified voters. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, there were, as of November 2018, approximately 4,872,000 voting-aged citizens in Tennessee, but only about 3,183,000 registered voters. Data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission ranked Tennessee 44th out of all U.S. states and the District of Columbia in the percentage of its citizen population that was registered to vote.
A motion asking the court to delay the law’s implementation while the case is resolved was filed on August 30.