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Otis Sanford

Otis Sanford holds the Hardin Chair of Excellence in Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Memphis and is the political analyst and commentator for WATN Local 24. Contact him at 901-678-3669 or at o.sanford@memphis.edu. Follow him on Twitter @otissanford.

Sanford: Legislature wields 1960s-style tactics to punish voter registration drives

By Published: April 21, 2019 7:49 AM CT

Must every major dispute in local and state politics turn into a mini-race war? For some people, the answer is an absolute yes.  

Racial fights are as much a part of our history as blues, country and bluegrass. They mobilize all parties involved, inflame passions to the nth degree and produce sensational headlines. They force combatants to dig in their heels and try to score political points by demonizing the opposition.  

<strong>Otis Sanford</strong>

Otis Sanford

And the side wielding the most political clout – in this case the Tennessee Legislature – gets to set the rules and make things intolerable for the other side. 

The case I’m referring to is a bill steamrolling through the legislature that would penalize groups that sponsor voter registration drives and end up turning in hundreds of “incomplete” forms. 

The Republican supermajority in the state House approved the bill with ease Monday, despite a chorus of complaints from opponents who see this as tantamount to voter suppression, primarily against people of color. 

Supporters say House Bill 1079 is intended only to eliminate the practice of groups paying people based on the number of voter registration forms they collect, and that most of those forms contain incomplete names, phony addresses and other fake information.  

Critics, including most Democratic lawmakers, view the bill as overkill, particularly an earlier version of the proposal that said violators could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor which carries 11 months and 29 days in jail. The criminal penalty was amended to apply only to those who do not take the required registration training.

Despite the amendment, Democratic state Rep. London Lamar of Memphis did not mince words. She called the bill a form of “voter disenfranchisement” and a “very lazy and punitive way of doing something.”   

Race is a key ingredient in the dispute because the bill’s sponsors acknowledge that it stems from efforts last year by the Black Voter Project in Shelby County to register large numbers of voters for the 2018 midterm election. Many of those forms, which were turned in at the registration deadline, were indeed incomplete and created an expensive headache for the Shelby County Election Commission, which had to sort through and verify them.  

In addition, a lawsuit filed by the Shelby County Democratic Party and the local branch of the NAACP sought to force the election commission to put the applicants collected by the Black Voter Project on the voter rolls. 

Robert Meyers, the outgoing commission chairman, vigorously supports the bill to cut down on what he viewed as fraud by the Black Voter Project.  

In a March 25 letter addressed only to the county’s Republican legislative caucus, Meyers said, “I saw firsthand how disruptive third-party voter registration drives can be…. Of the tens of thousands of voter registrations received by the SCEC in the few days before the close of voter registrations, most were incomplete and many were clearly fraudulent. 

“It could be argued that the combination of the way these voter registrations were handled prior to their delivery to the SCEC and the filing of the lawsuit were designed to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt into the election process,” Meyers wrote. 

Linda Phillips, administrator of elections for Shelby County, told me this week that dozens of forms turned in by the Black Voter Project were in the same handwriting. Others contained addresses that were vacant lots or housing projects that had long been torn down. 

Although Phillips stopped short of outright endorsing the bill passed by the House, she implied that it would make the election commission’s job easier.  

Of course, no one should knowingly turn in incomplete voter registration forms, let along fraudulent ones. There are laws on the books already that address those issues. But here’s the problem I have with this new legislation. It is clearly targeted at groups trying to register African-American voters, who are predominantly Democratic voters.   

Plus, why must we resort to using the threat of jail time when trying to address an issue that mostly involves African Americans?  

Republicans, including Secretary of State Tre Hargett, can try to make the argument that this legislation seeks only to protect and enhance voting. But if it passes the Senate and is signed by Gov. Bill Lee, which seems likely, it will put a chill on black voter registration drives. That’s the ultimate definition of voter suppression. 

Instead of fueling another racial fight over the right to vote, lawmakers should be promoting better ways to help individuals and groups with the registration process.  

One good way is about to be rolled out soon by the Shelby County Election Commission. The commission has purchased six new Android tablets that will be loaned out to groups to register people online.  

Online registrations improve accuracy and significantly reduce the time-consuming process of checking whether the applications are valid. Phillips said the tablets, which are programmed only for voter registrations, can be checked out just like a book at the library. 

 The information will be fed directly into the commission’s data base to make verification much simpler. 

“I don’t want people to go to jail,” Phillips told me. “I want people to register to vote.” 

I believe she is sincere. I cannot say the same for GOP lawmakers who think the only way to resolve thorny political issues – particularly those involving race – is with heavy-handed, 1960s-style tactics. 

 

Topics

Black Voter Project Tennessee Legislature Shelby County Election Commission

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