The new law, which went into effect immediately, outraged civil rights groups, who say the move is Tennessee’s latest attempt to repress voting ahead of the November elections.
“The racial motivation underlying the law is undeniable,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “It’s a clear backlash response to the Black Lives Matter movement and to people who are decisively protesting racial injustice and police violence.”
Clarke said her organization is considering a sweeping lawsuit addressing all the ways she believes Tennessee Republicans are trying to suppress and intimidate voters.
“To criminalize protest activity and disenfranchise voters on top of it defies principles that lie at the heart of our Constitution,” she said. “It’s pouring fuel on the fire when communities are seeking justice, change and reform.”
Tennessee is among the states not allowing voters to use fear of the novel coronavirus as a reason to vote by mail. In the state, it is a crime to distribute mail-in ballot applications. Last year, a federal judge blocked a new Tennessee law that sought to restrict voter registration drives.
Lee didn’t announce the signing or post about it on social media. Asked about the law during a state coronavirus news briefing Thursday, he said: “I think what we saw was a courthouse on fire and businesses being broken into and vehicles being damaged. We saw lawlessness that needed to be addressed immediately. And that was done so,” according to the Associated Press.
The new law also imposes mandatory minimum jail sentences for assaulting a first responder or participating in a riot. It also enhances penalties for vandalism of government property.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee sent a letter to Lee on Aug. 14 imploring him not to sign the legislation, writing that it “attacks our free speech rights, intentionally chilling the act of protesting by threatening those individuals with overly harsh criminal penalties.”
State Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D) tweeted Saturday that the legislation would have made the late civil rights leaders John Lewis and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “convicted felons.”
“We serve the people and should hear from the people,” she wrote. “This is ridiculous.”