In Legislative Updates

The General Assembly likely has heard all the election bills they plan to hear this session. Although some proposed legislation still awaits a final vote, at this point in the legislative cycle we have a fairly clear sense of how election law will – and will not – be changing in Tennessee this year.

Read on for a summary of events, including detail on which election bills passed, which ones failed and which ones might be returning next session.

SUMMARY

  • Of the more than 60 election bills introduced this session, less than one-third either passed or failed, most were not presented or discussed.
  • Tennessee will largely hold the line on voting rights this session — a departure from some other Southern states. Some state legislatures, e.g., in Georgia, have reversed progress on voting rights by passing bills that restrict voter access. But in Tennessee, bills that would have limited voter access – by abolishing Early Voting (SB1510) or preventing county election commissions from sharing absentee ballot applications without a written request (SB0835/HB1251), for example – were not discussed.
  • At the same time, the General Assembly rejected legislation that would have expanded voting rights and further secured our elections. Bills to expand the list of acceptable Voter IDs, require voter-verified paper trails on all new election machines and expand voting rights to some of the 420,000+ Tennesseans currently barred from the ballot box because of a past felony conviction all failed.
  • Two changes are probably coming to absentee ballots. SB1273/HB1098 will expand access to absentee ballots for residents in some independent living communities, but SB1315/ HB1276 – which is still in House committee – will require that absentee ballots bear an official watermark.
  • Approval will now be required for the use of private funding in elections. SB1534/HB0966 prevents state and local election officials from accepting private funding to conduct elections without receiving prior approval from either legislative leadership (for the state to accept private funding) or the Secretary of State (for county election commissions to accept it). This issue became particularly relevant during the 2020 presidential election, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife donated $350 million to help local election administrators conduct elections.
  • Three more counties look to soon increase access for voters on Election Day with a Convenience Vote Center pilot. SB0800/HB1178, still awaiting a Senate floor vote, expands the Vote Center model to three additional counties – Sullivan, Sumner and Weakley. Voters in counties that use Vote Centers can cast their ballots at any precinct in their county – rather than just their assigned polling place — on Election Day.

LEGISLATIVE DETAIL

Bills that Passed: 7. Five bills have been confirmed by both the House and Senate chambers. Two others have passed committees but are awaiting consideration by either the full House or Senate.

Highlights:

  • SB1273/HB1098: PASSED. While we’ve seen some other states restrict access to absentee voting, our legislature went the other direction, expanding access for some Tennesseans. Currently, county election commissions hold in-person absentee voting at nursing homes for residents. This bill allows residents in independent living communities on those properties to vote absentee at the same time.
  • SB1534/HB0966: PASSED. This bill prevents state and local election officials from accepting private funding to conduct elections without receiving prior approval from either legislative leadership (for the state to accept private funding) or the Secretary of State (for county election commissions to accept it). This issue became particularly relevant during the 2020 presidential election, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife donated $350 million to help local election administrators conduct elections.

Other Bills:

  • SB0419/HB0722: PASSED. Requires a county election commissioner to recuse themselves when an immediate family member is on the ballot and to step down if they are a candidate themselves.
  • SB0208/HB0500: PASSED. Expands the right of a person to place political campaign signs on their property for a certain time to all elections rather than only general elections.
  • SB0626/HB1193: PASSED. Allows the registry of election finance to retain counsel to pursue the collection of unpaid civil penalties assessed by the registry, instead of the attorney general and reporter.
  • SB0800/HB1178: IN PROCESS. Awaiting a Senate floor vote, this bill allows the counties piloting Convenience Vote Centers in 2020 (Williamson, Wilson and Monroe) to continue the model and allows three more (Sullivan, Sumner and Weakley) to begin a pilot program.
  • SB1120/HB1179: IN PROCESS. Awaiting a House floor vote, this bill applies the same restriction – ineligibility to qualify for an election – to certain officers of a PAC with unpaid civil penalties that is currently applied to individual candidates.

Bills that Failed: 10. These bills were presented for discussion but failed in either House or Senate committees.

Highlights:

  • SB0466/HB0597: FAILED. Would have allowed student IDs as an acceptable Voter ID, expanded absentee voting to any voter and enabled first-time voters who registered by mail to vote absentee.
  • SB0947/HB1324: FAILED. Would have required the Secretary of State to conduct a study on using student IDs as an acceptable Voter ID and report back to the General Assembly.
  • SB0927/HB0937: FAILED. Would have required county election commissions purchasing new voting machines to choose ones that could provide a voter-verified paper trail. The bill was presented as a response to a TACIR study requested by an earlier body of the General Assembly, which recommended counties use voting machines that can provide a paper trail as a best practice for election security. The House subcommittee rejected the bill, citing cost and a desire to leave the decision to counties.
  • SB1414/HB0806: FAILED. Would have required only the last four digits of a voter’s social security number on an absentee ballot application.
  • SB0647/HB1393: FAILED. Would have made individuals who lost their voting rights due to a felony conviction eligible for the restoration of rights if they maintained a payment plan for the amount of restitution owed.

Other Bills:

  • SB1342/HB1280: FAILED. Would have required judicial and countywide office elections in Shelby and Davidson Counties to be nonpartisan.
  • SB0249/HB0209: FAILED. Would have allowed up to two members of an LLC owning property in a city to vote in the municipal elections.
  • SB0914/HB1020: FAILED. Would have required local education agencies to provide voter registration information to students turning 18 on or before the date of an election.
  • SB1302/HB1487: FAILED. Would have required county election commissions to alert voters of their impending purge from voter rolls and provide information on ways to avoid it.
  • SB0651/HB0609: FAILED. Would have changed the requirements for a political party to become a recognized minor party.

Other: 2. One bill is still working through House committees and awaits floor votes in both chambers. And one bill was discussed in House subcommittee before being withdrawn with the sponsor indicating he will bring it back next year.

  • SB1315/HB1276: IN PROCESS. Passed in Senate committee, but still working through House committees, this bill also initially proposed prohibiting private funding of elections but was amended to instead require election officials to place a watermark on absentee ballots. Any absentee ballot returned without a watermark would be rejected by the absentee counting board. This legislation appears to be in response to the allegations and concerns over by-mail voting, though Tennessee didn’t have any reported issues.
  • SB0018/HB0561: TAKEN OFF NOTICE. Would have changed the revocation of voting rights following certain felony convictions from permanent to temporary with rights restored upon completion of sentence.

 

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