Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed several election-related bills into law last week, which were passed by the General Assembly before it took a two-month recess caused by the coronavirus.
The most controversial bill signed by Lee scales back restrictions on community voter registration efforts that were put in place in 2019 by the Republican-controlled Legislature. The new bill removes “misdemeanor penalties for not completing certain administrative requirements” and eliminates fines for submitting an abundance of incomplete voter registration forms, according to the Associated Press.
The 2019 law was challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee last year on behalf of organizations that conduct voter registration activities. A federal court blocked the law from taking effect and the new bill signed into law Thursday “stripped out the challenged unconstitutional provisions,” the ACLU said.
“The Legislature’s repeal of this law allows groups doing the critical, on-the-ground work to keep our democracy running to continue their vital efforts. Voter registration drives are essential to ensuring that historically disenfranchised groups – including students, people of color, immigrants and senior citizens – can exercise their right to vote,” Thomas Castelli, ACLU legal director, said in a statement. “We are pleased that our lawsuit succeeded in restoring voter registration and expanding access to the ballot box in Tennessee.”
The ACLU said the 2019 law “created criminal and civil penalties against those who were unable to comply with onerous new requirements” and threatened to “curtail or completely suspend the efforts of key voter registration groups.”
“The law we challenged was one of the most aggressive attempts ever in the U.S. to restrict voter registration groups. The court ruling blocking the law and the state’s subsequent repeal send a clear message that such draconian restrictions will not stand in Tennessee or elsewhere,” claimed ACLU staff attorney Theresa Lee.
Lee signed two other election bills into law last week, including one that creates felony penalties for intentionally providing false information about voter registration or polling places.
A final bill approved the use of “emergency supersites” for voting if polling places can’t be used because of tornado damage or coronavirus restrictions.
The Tennessee General Assembly announced in March that it would recess for at least two months and hopes to return by June 1.
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