News Transparency and Elections

Voter-Roll Reform Heads to Governor

A measure that changes why a county election administrator can clean out voter rolls — purportedly aimed at minimizing the chances of a so-called political “witch hunt” — passed both chambers of the Tennessee Legislature overwhelmingly last week.

If signed by the governor, voters cannot be purged from the local voter rolls for minor mistakes on their registration forms after an office accepts the document and adds them to the rolls. A voter can only be removed if he or she knowingly provides false information on the form or uses a false signature.

Supporters of the legislation feared some people — particularly Democratic voters — were being removed from the rolls over innocent mistakes when filling out the form. Those individuals would then be unable to vote.

“The purpose of this legislation is to make sure citizens can rely on the local offices where they register to vote, (that) once they have completed a voter registration form and submit it…that they know they are registered to vote,” said Rep. Gary Odom, a Nashville Democrat and sponsor of the bill.

The measure emerged because Democrats feared Republican election administrators were using minor errors voters made on registration forms to target Democrat voters for removal from election rolls.

After the GOP gained control of the Legislature, about three dozen counties replaced their county election administrators with Republican appointees, as allowed by state law. Democrats suddenly on the outside looking in became frightened their partisan constituents would be unfairly ousted from the voter rolls by overzealous new election administrators.

Odom pointed specifically to Benton County, where almost 20 percent of the county’s voters received letters earlier this year saying their voter registration was invalid and they would have to re-register.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation officials are now looking into the claims and deciding whether to launch a full investigation, as requested by Odom, who is also the leading Democrat in the state House of Representatives.

Benton County Election Administrator Mark Ward denied Odom’s claims before the committee, saying his county’s rolls were not alphabetized when he took office, as required by state law, and the person he hired to alphabetize the rolls noticed a number of “discrepancies.” Ward said he purged the rolls at the guidance of Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a former Republican House leader who took office last year.

House Bill 3456, as initially drafted, would’ve only allowed a county election administrator to purge voters on the second year after a U.S. Census.

As passed, it now requires a Democrat and Republican member of each county election commission to periodically review voter registration forms to see if registrants are properly filling out the documents — a suggestion added by Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and former House Republican leader himself. Dunn said the requirement would “add another level of accountability” in county election offices.

The measure passed 93-1 in the House and 32-0 in the Senate.