Tennessee AVR Seeks To Streamline Voter Registration

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Grassroots organization Tennessee Voting Revival Alliance is launching a petition campaign, Tennessee AVR, urging the Tennessee General Assembly to adopt automatic voter registration. 

“Automatic voter registration is more efficient, economical and error-proof than paper and online registration, and it would increase civic engagement in Tennessee, one of the worst states for voter registration and turnout,” said Kelley Elliott, an organizer with Tennessee Voting Revival Alliance. “Most Tennesseans support AVR, so our petition gives them a forum to express that support to the General Assembly. We’re asking state lawmakers to take up AVR legislation when they reconvene in January.”

AVR legislation won sponsors in both chambers of the TGA last session but was moved to summer study, Ms. Elliott said. 

Already law in many states, AVR combines the processes of registering to vote and registering with a state government agency that requires similar proof of identity, typically the Department of Motor Vehicles (hence its nickname, “motor voter” registration). Under AVR, Tennesseans who receive a driver’s license or state ID would be automatically registered to vote when they turn 18, unless they opt out. 

Because county election offices already communicate electronically with the DMV, implementing AVR would be quick and inexpensive, Ms. Elliott said.

“AVR laws are gaining traction nationwide as state legislatures look for ways to make registering and voting easier for citizens—especially those with financial or logistical barriers—as well as for county election offices,” she said. “Tennesseans of both parties like AVR too. Earlier this year, a Vanderbilt poll showed that 66 percent of Tennesseans support the idea.”

While many other states are removing unnecessary obstacles to voting, Tennessee’s legislature has been moving in the opposite direction, EMs. lliott said. Over the past decade, the TGA has been adding new layers of restrictions that have made registering and voting more difficult—and the negative impact on the democratic process is measurable. 

“Our state is one of the worst for voter participation,” she said. “Last year the Pew Charitable Trust, a nonpartisan organization, called West Tennessee one of the hardest places to vote in America. Voting is a constitutional right. Tennessee should be encouraging citizens to exercise that right, not discouraging them.”

A new law, set to take effect Oct. 1, would make Tennessee the only state that can criminally penalize voter registration organizations for insignificant errors people make on registration forms. Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger refused to dismiss a legal challenge to the law, noting its potentially “chilling effect” on efforts to register new voters in Tennessee.

AVR would sidestep the issue by eliminating much of the need for voter registration drives, Ms. Elliott said.

The Tennessee AVR petition asks Tennessee lawmakers to take up legislation written last spring by three Chattanooga high school students, winners of the Tennessee Bar Association’s statewide CATALYST (Civic Achievement Through Activism in the Legislature by Young Students in Tennessee) contest. The students presented their winning legislation to the Tennessee General Assembly, where Rep. Carson W. (Bill) Beck (D-Nashville) and Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) agreed to sponsor it. 

“If we want Tennessee to be better—not just in comparison to everyone else, but in comparison to ourselves—we have to start including more people who live here,” said Lauren Tolbert, who helped write the bill. “For a lot of folks, just getting to the polls is already difficult. If voting is a constitutional right, why should it be harder? Why would you want more barriers? AVR won’t fix everything, but it’s a start.”

Tennessee AVR was formed to pick up the torch the students lit, Ms. Elliott said. “We’re determined to carry their message forward and get this legislation passed. We want to make Tennessee a place where all citizens have equal access to their constitutional right to vote.”

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