Republicans target voter registration drives with new state laws

Republicans target voter registration drives with new state laws
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Groups that conduct drives to register new voters face new rules and restrictions under measures that have passed into law in recent years, part of a new front in the battle over voting rights that is expanding into Republican-led states.

For years, Democrats and Republicans have been fighting over the rules surrounding the process of actually casting a ballot. The fight over implementing rules surrounding registering to vote is newer, though it too is likely to be a front in the ongoing battles to come as Republicans look to maintain their strongholds in increasingly competitive states.

The GOP-led Tennessee state Senate this week passed a measure that would require voter registration groups to go through training before they begin signing people up to vote. The measure would also levy fines on groups that submit too many incomplete forms.

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The measure will return to the state House, where a largely similar version passed earlier this year. Gov. Bill Lee (R) has not said whether he will sign it, but the bill is backed by Secretary of State Tre Hargett (R), who said incomplete forms unduly burden local election offices.

“We want every eligible Tennessean to vote, and complete forms are critical to that opportunity,” Hargett said in a statement. “Voter registration drives are important to the process, but to be successful, we must make sure that citizens submit forms with enough information to be processed.”

“This bill will help ensure all who want to vote have the ability to do so and will enhance the security and integrity of elections,” he added.

The Equity Alliance, a Nashville-based group that registers African American voters, said in a statement that the bill “is blatantly racist and mirrors the Jim Crow-era intimidation used to stifle decades of progress our nation and our state has made to ensure voting rights for people of color.” 

Critics of the bill have accused it of being a veiled attempt to suppress black voters after organized efforts in the 2018 midterm election cycle to boost voter turnout among African Americans and people of color.

“I would not be surprised if we see more and more of these types of bills being proposed particularly in places like Tennessee where you’ve seen really high turnout in recent elections among groups that have been traditionally more marginalized,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union's (ACLU) Voting Rights Project. “It’s highly suspect timing that we’ve seen in Tennessee.”

In Arizona, the state Senate is waiting to take up a House-passed measure that would ban voter registration groups from paying employees for every form they submit. Under the bill, paying those employees per new registered voter could land an offender in jail for up to six months.

State Rep. Kelly Townsend (R), who sponsored the Arizona bill, said her measure aimed “to reduce fraudulent voter registrations.” She said she had worked with Democrats to polish the bill’s language.

“They are not jumping up and down in favor of it, but I am confident they see that we are trying to tighten up areas that are causing problems,” Townsend told The Hill in an email. “We just disagree on the method.”

The new measures come after concerted efforts to register thousands of new voters in both states, and across the country. New voters turned out at a significantly higher rate in the 2018 midterm elections than in previous years, according to elections analysts, and many of those voters were younger or minority voters, who largely voted for Democrats.

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But supporters of the new measures say they are necessary, both to cut down potential voter fraud and, more pressing for cash-strapped local elections bureaus, to make sure the voters who sign up to register actually have their forms turned in on time.

“There’s real financial costs involved. Secondarily, there’s real concern about security. The devil’s in the details, and a lot depends on the local political cultures in the states,” said Mark Braden, an election law expert and former chief counsel at the Republican National Committee. “There have been situations where people are getting paid by the registrant. That can incentivize people to register people who don’t exist.”

The efforts to create new rules around voter registration drives have civil rights organizations concerned that the process of signing people up to vote has become overtly political. 

“There’s always a backlash when under-represented constituencies flex their muscle at the ballot box,” said Athena Salman, a member of Democratic leadership in the Arizona state House. “Let’s just say there’s a reason why Arizona was included in the original version of the Voting Rights Act.”

After Florida passed a law in 2011 that required those groups to turn in new voter forms within 48 hours, both the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote stopped conducting new registration drives, according to John Shattuck, a senior fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and a diplomacy professor at Tufts University. 

A federal judge later blocked the 48-hour window.

“We’re talking about criminal penalties in some instances, and that’s pretty scary for voter registration groups,” the ACLU’s Lakin said. “Some groups just can’t do work in certain places, based on the restrictions, what the requirements are.”

Three states besides Florida have passed similar restrictions on voter registration drives in recent years. In 2011, Texas passed a law similar to Tennessee’s, requiring voter registrars to undergo training before they get to work. Groups registering new Iowa voters must turn in forms within seven days, under a 2017 law. 

And the Democratic-controlled legislature in Illinois required forms to be turned in within two to seven days, depending on how they are submitted.

Current laws on the books set a deadline for turning in new registration forms of between two and five days in blue states and red states alike, from California and Maryland to Texas and Iowa. Three states other than Texas — Colorado, Illinois and New Mexico — require community groups to undergo training before they register voters.

On the other side of the debate, several states are moving toward eliminating the need for voter registration drives altogether — by automatically registering every eligible citizen who comes into contact with a state agency.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) said this week his office will study how to implement automatic voter registration. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia already automatically register voters, usually when they interact with the state Department of Motor Vehicles. 

Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon (D) said this week she would push a bill to create automatic voter registration in her state by 2022.

And in New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan GrishamMichelle Lynn Lujan GrishamWalmart to stop selling guns in New Mexico New Mexico governor to Nike after Arizona snub: 'Let's talk' Border militia group member charged with impersonation of a US border patrol agent MORE (D) signed a law last month that will make her state the latest to allow voters to register and vote on Election Day itself.

“Everybody’s paranoid on elections,” Braden said. “Whether the paranoia is justified or not is a different question.”