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Washington Post: How a large-scale effort to register black voters led to a crackdown in Tennessee

This article was originally published by the Washington Post.

Last year, an army of paid workers with stacks of voter registration forms fanned out in Memphis, Nashville and other parts of Tennessee to persuade African Americans to vote. They walked the parking lots of grocery stores and laundromats, stood outside church services, and cajoled revelers on party buses and at nightclubs.

By October, the Tennessee Black Voter Project took credit for turning in more than 90,000 voter registration applications — what organizers hoped would be a first step in a broader effort to get more African Americans to be a regular force in elections.

But the surge of forms that landed in the months before Election Day was chaotic and consuming, according to officials in the state’s two largest counties, which include Memphis and Nashville. Thousands of applications had errors or omissions, they said, and their workers were overwhelmed by the task of verifying all the forms.

The state’s top elections official, a former Republican lawmaker named Mark Goins, called the crush of applications and the errors they contained a “dangerous” situation for others who were “properly” trying to register.

He proposed a solution that went further than any other state had: imposing civil penalties on groups that employ paid canvassers if they submit incomplete or inaccurate voter registration forms.

“We want to provide for fair, for genuine — for elections with integrity,” Republican Gov. Bill Lee said when he signed the bill May 2.

The new law, which will take effect Oct. 1 unless the courts intervene, imposes penalties of up to $2,000 for each county where an organization with paid workers submits more than 100 deficient forms. The fine gets much steeper — up to $10,000 per county — where the number of deficient forms exceeds 500.

What played out in Tennessee illustrates the messiness that has accompanied some large-scale efforts to draw new Democratic voters into the electorate, providing an opening for critics to push for stricter rules. The fallout is part of a national clash between the two parties over access to the polls — one fueled by energized efforts on the left to expand the voting pool and new limits backed by Republican lawmakers, who often echo President Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud.

There is no definitive account of what exactly went wrong in Tennessee last year. Republicans, who control all arms of the government — including the state and county election commissions — did not formally investigate the matter before moving to pass the new law. As a result, there is no official account of how many applications were faulty, the source of the problems and whether the Tennessee Black Voter Project was to blame.

Local elections officials said the vast majority of problems were basic omissions, often in a single field on the forms — not the more egregious examples that can raise suspicions of fraud.

Nonetheless, as the issue played out in the legislature, lawmakers focused on forms with fake names, or those of dead people or ineligible felons. They also used unverified and inconsistent figures to emphasize the threat of fraud, which has long been illegal in Tennessee, to further their case to impose new penalties on forms with mistakes and omissions.

The new law has prompted two federal lawsuits accusing Tennessee of voter suppression.

“They have created more administrative hurdles to make it harder to vote,” said Charlane Oliver, a co-founder of the Equity Alliance, one of the partners of the Tennessee Black Voter Project. “And that’s exactly what they want. They don’t want black people to vote.”

Through a spokeswoman, Goins and his boss, Secretary of State Tre Hargett, declined requests for interviews, citing ongoing litigation. The office of Lee, the governor, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A crush before Election Day
With nearly 1 million residents, more than half of them African American, Shelby County is home to Memphis and Tennessee’s largest concentration of black residents.

Linda Phillips, Shelby County’s election administrator, said she began hearing of issues last summer related to a new and aggressive voter registration drive underway across the city.

There were complaints that canvassers were being paid on a quota system, creating an incentive for them to submit large quantities of forms, even if they weren’t complete or valid, she said. Organizers with the voter project denied that they paid workers on a quota system.

As the state’s Oct. 9 registration deadline approached, Phillips said, thousands of forms were submitted. As her staff worked through them, they discovered that many had problems, she said. Multiple forms featured the same name. Required fields weren’t filled out. Some had only a first name or were missing an address. One said “Melvin” and nothing else, according to a batch reviewed by The Washington Post. About 1,300 were from felons, who are ineligible to vote, Phillips said.

County election officials’ effort to track down voters to fix their applications was challenging because some addresses didn’t exist and others belonged to vacant lots. One phone number led to a man in Nova Scotia, Phillips said.

On the final day, the Tennessee Black Voter Project — the largest third-party registration drive working in the Memphis area, Phillips said — dropped off 10,000 applications.

“We were working 12- to 18-hour shifts,” Phillips recalled. “At one point I and my supervisors didn’t have a day off for 45 days. The burden that it placed on us literally was going to prevent us from doing our job. I thought my assistant was going to crawl under her desk and sob.”

Jeff Roberts, Phillips’s counterpart in Davidson County, home to Nashville, described a similar crush. Every two weeks starting in July, Roberts’s office received a box in the mail with hundreds of forms, many of them containing errors or omissions.

Roberts said his office set up a “triage” system to go through the boxes. But many notices to voters with deficient forms bounced back, he said.

Organizers of the registration drive acknowledged some errors but said they believe that the rate of problems was far lower than what county and state officials claimed — and no different from the error rate among registration forms overall.

The Equity Alliance’s Oliver said the Tennessee Black Voter Project had sought guidance ahead of time from local election officials and warned them of the volume of forms coming.

Under Tennessee law, it is a crime for anyone to discard a completed voter registration form. Oliver said organizers believed they were required to turn in incomplete or inaccurate applications, based on guidance from local election officials.

A 'debacle' in Shelby County
After the election, Goins examined errant forms in Shelby and Davidson counties, he told lawmakers in public hearings this spring, and became convinced that legislative action was needed.

Goins did not request a complete accounting of all the errors. Instead, he offered anecdotal stories to lawmakers about the errors he had seen or heard about.

“It became a situation where it was very dangerous for other individuals who were properly trying to register, because we were so backlogged,” he told lawmakers.

Republican state Rep. Tim Rudd, one of the bill’s sponsors, repeated the claim that some drives were paying canvassers by the form when he introduced the bill in a committee hearing in March. “So they were just signing people up and flooding them,” he said. “So this is an effort to clean that up.”

Republican state Rep. Mike Carter, a lawmaker from the outskirts of Chattanooga, called what played out in Shelby County a “debacle.” In an interview, Carter said the volume of problematic forms prevented “honest voters” from being able to vote but acknowledged that he could not provide an instance of that.

GOP lawmakers also cited examples of the kind of registration fraud that is already a crime under Tennessee law. In one hearing, Goins, the state election coordinator, read an outraged letter from a man who had just received confirmation of his wife’s registration, even though she had died in 2016.

“ ‘Her change of address now is in heaven,’ ” Goins said, reading the letter. “ ‘No Zip code there.’ And so that’s the chaos we were seeing.”

Goins did not say how many attempts to register a dead person occurred in the fall. Phillips said she knew of two or three instances in Shelby County. Roberts, in Davidson County, said he was aware of one dead person showing up on a form. He noted that such instances are not necessarily fraud and could result from using a wrong Social Security number.

To support the contention that canvassers had been paid for each form they collected on a quota system, Goins cited a single anonymous source claiming to have worked for a third-party registration drive under such an incentive program.

But Oliver said that workers for the Tennessee Black Voter Project, which was the largest registration effort in the state last fall, were paid by the hour and that they did not use a quota system. She also said lawmakers never asked about it, and she accused them of targeting paid drives because they typically operate in minority communities.

Intensive voter registration efforts appear to have had an effect in Tennessee: Turnout among black voters rose from 31 percent to 45 percent from 2014 to 2018, according to U.S. Census data.

“This is how they suppress the vote,” Oliver said. “You can’t sit here and tell me this is about election integrity. It’s not. This is about keeping black people in their place. We caught them off guard, and now they have to come up with a law to stifle that energy and that effort.”

Republicans strenuously denied that charge. “We have no intentions to prevent people from registering voters,” said Republican state Sen. Ed Jackson, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill. “We want to encourage that. We need more people to vote in our state . . . But we’ve got to do it properly.”

While Republicans said the problems were tied to forms turned in by paid workers, the data they cited could not be verified.

In a state Senate hearing in March, Goins said that as many as 55 percent of the forms turned in by the paid groups were deficient, saying that 16,500 out of 30,000 applications turned in by a third-party effort in Shelby County had errors or bad information.

That figure was then cited repeatedly by Republican lawmakers.

The Tennessee Black Voter Project submitted 36,000 forms in Shelby County, organizers said. Phillips, the election administrator, told The Post that about 8,000 of the group’s forms were deficient — about 22 percent.

Most of the evidence cited in legislative hearings involved Shelby County, but Goins also said problems occurred elsewhere in the state, including Davidson and Knox counties.

Knox County received 105,000 voter registration forms overall, many of them deficient, according to Cliff Rodgers, the elections administrator. Most of the problems involved duplicates or missing forms, while about one or two dozen contained problems that could have been attempted fraud, he said.

“We just didn’t have that many,” he said.

Roberts said that in Davidson County, roughly half of 12,000 forms he received from the Tennessee Black Voter Project had deficiencies of some kind, including between 250 and 300 in which he suspected fraud.

Available state data does not show whether forms submitted by the voter project had a higher error rate than forms overall.

About 50 percent of all voter registration forms submitted statewide in 2018 resulted in valid registrations, according to data from the secretary of state. The data does not break down the reasons that forms did not result in registrations.

In Shelby County, 56 percent of forms submitted last year resulted in registrations — slightly higher than the statewide average. In Knox it was 54 percent, and in Davidson it was 43 percent.

Fear of a chilling effect
Opponents of the new law said they worry that any large-scale effort to register new voters could incur penalties.

“We’re taking people who are trying to do their job well and might not be very good at it and making them liable,” said Steve Dickerson, a Nashville doctor and Republican state senator who voted against the bill. “The larger point is that we don’t have good voter participation in Tennessee. This bill went after a problem that might have been small and brought in penalties that I think were disproportionate. I think we could have come up with a better and more subtle piece of policy.”

Tennessee ranked 45th in voter registration and 49th in voter turnout in a survey of the 50 states plus the District in 2016, according to the MIT Election Data and Science Lab.

Jackson, the state senator and one of the bill’s sponsors, said in public testimony that the law was not intended to apply to “well-intended voter activist groups” such as the League of Women Voters, which runs smaller, mostly volunteer-based registration drives.

But Marion Ott, president of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee, said in testimony before a state Senate committee that she worried that the league — a nonprofit that receives grants and sometimes pays people to help with voter registration — could also be affected by the measure.

“We want all these people to register to vote, and we don’t want to be the state that criminalizes voter registration drives,” Ott said.

The measure also imposes criminal penalties, including up to nearly a year in prison, for groups that pay canvassers on a quota system or that do not register with the secretary of state and train their workers.

In addition, a provision of the law bans out-of-state poll watchers. Carter, the lawmaker from the Chattanooga area, said during a March hearing that at one voting location, he encountered a poll watcher from New Jersey “interfering in our elections.” He said he chased the man away by calling the sheriff.

Opponents said such stories invoke painful memories of the civil rights era, when Southerners tried to block outside voting monitors.

“History has shown us that without impartial outside observers, lots of the progress we’ve seen, especially when it comes to voting rights and stopping the criminal activity that used to prevent African Americans and others from voting, would never have happened,” said Maxim Thorne, managing director of the Andrew Goodman Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes voting access and is among the groups suing over the new law.

The group is named for one of the three young civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964 while registering African Americans to vote. “For some, those were the good old days, of rampant lawlessness,” Thorne said. “We have no intention of letting that return today.”