Protesters demonstrate against a bill regulating voter registration drives in Tennessee. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
Opinion writer

As we turn our attention toward the 2020 elections, Republican lawmakers across the country are asking: How can we keep people from voting? In Tennessee, which already has lower-than-average rates of turnout, the legislature is on the case:

Tennessee could penalize some paid voter registration groups with fines for too many faulty signups and criminal charges for violating new requirements under a proposal passed by the House on Monday.

The vote bucked some voting rights groups, who have voiced fear that the bill would create a chilling effect on Tennessee’s already-poor voter participation marks.

Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett has made the legislation a top priority, deeming it important for election security after Shelby County, which includes Memphis, saw a flood of often-faulty registrations that came in on last year’s deadline.

But Tennessee Black Voter Project, which led the voter signup charge in Memphis and elsewhere across the state, has said the bill immediately followed the group’s efforts to register 86,000 black voters.

Under this law, organizations that mount voter registration drives will have to be trained by the state, and then they can be fined and face jail time if they have lots of registrations with mistakes.

Just to provide a bit of context, every group that does registrations gets some faulty ones. When you sit at a table outside a supermarket registering people to vote, there are always jokesters who will fill out the form in the name of Mickey Mouse or Clark Kent, but the group doing the registering is legally required to submit the forms, even if they’re sure they’re false.

The problem here is obviously not that erroneous registrations create some kind of unmanageable burden on state officials, because they've always existed and always will.

It’s that too many black people registered to vote in Tennessee, and something had to be done about it.

So in addition to using all the other tools in their voter-suppression drawer, Republicans in Tennessee decided to clamp down on registration, knowing full well that liberal groups are much more likely to mount registration drives than conservative groups.

This isn’t the first time something like this has been tried. Before the 2012 election, Republicans in Florida passed a registration law so restrictive that it led nonpartisan groups such as the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote to suspend their voter registration drives in the state.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who often makes plain what other Republicans prefer to conceal amid a fog of misdirection, used to say that “low voter turnout is a sign of a content democracy.” More recently he has described Democratic efforts to make voting easier, with measures like making Election Day a national holiday, as a “power grab.” In other words, he makes no bones about the fact that if we made it easier to vote, too many people would vote for Democrats.

Every Republican understands that; McConnell is just one of the few willing to say it out loud. But the truth is that suppressing votes is absolutely critical to Republican success. They know full well that their ability to compete and win in the American political process is dependent on the countermajoritarian features of our system — the filibuster, the fact that the Senate gives the same representation to the fewer than 600,000 residents of Wyoming as the nearly 40 million in California, the electoral college — nearly every one of which works to the advantage of the GOP.

And as the party grows more dependent on older, wealthier, white voters — who are more likely to be registered and more likely to turn out — Republicans know that the harder registering and voting is, the more likely they are to win. No prospect is more threatening to Republican success than high turnout.

Consider the last three midterm elections. Last year, turnout was 50 percent, and Democrats won huge victories, including taking back the House. In 2014, a “wave” election for Republicans, it was only 37 percent. In 2010, another Republican wave, it was 42 percent. Anything that gets more people to the polls will be good for Democrats and bad for Republicans.

Which is why the GOP will do everything in its power to keep registration and turnout low — and why making it easier to vote is so important for Democrats. So in the coming days we’re almost certain to see a further separation between red and blue states.

It will look like this: Where Democrats are in charge, they’ll institute automatic voter registration, same-day registration, no-excuse absentee voting, extended early voting, and anything else that will maximize turnout and make voting easy. Where Republicans are in charge they’ll employ voter ID, restricted early voting, polling place closures, and anything else that will drive voting down, particularly among African Americans.

And if all that isn’t enough, Republicans will go after the people registering voters, too.