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Discussion Continues on Proposal to Tighten Voter Registration Requirements

Senate debate over a bill aimed at preventing non-citizens from registering to vote is scheduled to continue today after it was held up in the Senate last week by accusations and counter-accusations that the proposed polices under discussion could lead to racial or ethnic profiling.

The legislation, SB 0194, would require anyone seeking to vote in a Tennessee election to prove they are a citizen of the United States. The current system is based solely on an applicant’s word — they simply check a box on the voter registration form stating that they are indeed a citizen

Supporters of the bill say it will reduce voter fraud.

Democrats worry the legislation will enable local officials to engage in “profiling,” and disenfranchise legitimate voters.

“I truly believe we do not want to be in a situation where people are being profiled, where some people are asked to submit proof and some people are not asked to submit proof,” said Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis.

Kyle’s suggested solution was to require county election administrators to report to the state on the gender, race, ethnicity, and nationality of anyone who did not include the accepted ways of proving citizenship. It was an idea he offered in the form of an amendment to the bill.

Murfreesboro Republican Bill Ketron quickly observed that “keeping records of gender, race, nationality, etc.” sounds suspiciously like profiling in its own right.

“If you have papers…you’re here legally, then it’s recorded,” said Ketron. “If you don’t, then you don’t register to vote.”

Nevertheless, Kyle argued that without the reporting requirement included in the amendment, the public will never know “whether (a registrar) is profiling or not profiling.”

Local election officials are “operating in a vacuum,” he said. “The only one who’s going to know is person who got profiled.”

Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, added that she believes Kyle’s amendment “would give us some sort of information and some sort of guidelines where we could judge whether or not the people at the (county) election commission are seriously looking at the voter applications and whether they are rejecting a lot of applications.”

Mike Faulk, a Kingsport Republican, said some groups turn in masses of registration forms after a voter registration drive which could make a county election administrator look like they are profiling when they are not.

He said that at such voter registration drives, the registrar would not meet face-to-face with each person filling out a form, and the sheer volume of forms turned in after a voter registration drive would make it hard for a registrar to have time to check into each one to verify the citizenship information submitted is accurate.

Kyle disagreed, saying the reporting requirement would show whether the election offices are treating people equally.

When dealing with stacks of voter registration forms, he said, it would show whether a registrar decided whether “I’m going to question every third one, or I’m going to question every one, or I’m only going to question the ones where the guy’s name is ‘Jose,'” said Kyle.

A vote on the bill was put off after the sponsor of the original bill, Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, voiced concerns that Kyle’s amendment would cost the state money, but agreed to allow Kyle time to do a price check with election officials.

A version of the bill has already passed in the House.

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Time to Talk About Wine Again

A joint legislative study group is set to uncork another round of discussion Tuesday on changing Tennessee law to allow wine sales in grocery stores.

Leading the committee is Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, who said that just as in the group’s first hearing in late October, he’ll allot mic time to both advocates and opponents of the proposed legislation leftover from last year.

But Ketron, a supporter of the wine-in-grocery-stores bills, said he’s also asked a “neutral party” to corroborate published estimates  — challenged by some who oppose legalizing wine sales outside liquor stores — that as much or more than $17 million dollars in additional state tax revenue could be pressed annually from the private sector if grocery store wine sales were permitted.

For three years now, proponents of bringing Tennessee’s retail wine laws in line with 33 other states have been pushing the issue in the Legislature. For three years they’ve come up empty.

Largely responsible thus far for vanquishing vino drinkers’ visions of greater choice are the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association and the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of Tennessee, who’ve lobbied heavily against allowing supermarkets to compete in the retail wine market.

“The future of 550 independent Tennessee-owned small businesses, and their over 3,000 employees, are being threatened,” Chip Christianson, a Nashville liquor store owner and board member for the TWSRA, told the study group during its last meeting.

“How many lost jobs and lost Tennessee businesses are worth a little more convenience for a very few?” he asked.

Christianson also suggested during the hearing that grocery store employees are not reliably capable of determining if customers seeking to purchase “high-proof alcohol products” are of legal age.

One strategy Ketron and his allies are employing to try and cobble together more political support this time around is to invite some of the traditional foes of grocery store wine sales to belly up to the bargaining table.

Retail liquor store owners tend to labor under some pretty onerous restrictions themselves, said Ketron, so it’s probably time to consider reforming a whole range of the state’s three-quarters-of-a-century-old booze-business laws.

Today’s hearing will include discussions about problematic regulatory issues that hinder them as well, he said.

For example, state laws prohibits liquor stores from selling products like ice, beer and non-alcoholic drink mixers and proprietors are banned from owning more than one outlet. Ketron, who also chairs the Senate State and Local Government Committee, said he’d like to see those rules relaxed, too.

Basically, Tennessee’s business regulations that govern the sale of alcohol are antiquated and in need of updating across the board, he said.

“Many of (the laws) go back to the early 1930s, around the time Prohibition was repealed,” said Ketron. “They’ve become convoluted…and it’s basically led to the jumbled mess that we have today.”

The hearing starts this afternoon at 1:30 (agenda-pdf). Watch it online here.