Thousands of voters in Tennessee were at risk of being blocked from casting regular ballots when early voting opened this week, as officials struggled to process a surge of new registrations ahead of Nov. 6 elections to determine control of the U.S. Congress.
The delay disproportionately affected the area around Memphis, a majority African-American city, leading activists to charge the Republican-controlled state government has not done enough to protect the rights of young and minority voters.
State officials, however, said they were simply struggling to keep up with a surge in paperwork ahead of Election Day.
But young and minority voters could very well tip the U.S. Senate election between Democratic former governor Phil Bredesen and Republican U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn.
Democrats view that matchup as one of their few chances to pick up the two additional seats in the U.S. Senate they would need to take a majority and more effectively oppose President Donald Trump’s agenda, though recent polls show Blackburn ahead.
Similar concerns about slow or blocked registrations for new voters have been made in a number of states, including Georgia and Texas.
“These disputed registrations have been disproportionately in communities of color,” said Earle Fisher, a Memphis voter registration activist. “It reeks of voter suppression.”
In Shelby County, officials had yet to process 4,000 voter registration applications when early-voting polls opened on Wednesday, elections administrator Linda Phillips said.
About 20,000 registration applications turned in by the nonpartisan Tennessee Black Voter Project were deemed problematic, leading the organization to sue the county.
Shelby County residents filed 59,000 new registrations between June and the state’s Oct. 9 deadline, overwhelming officials, Phillips said, adding: “This is an unprecedented number of new registrations before a midterm election.”
The county – Tennessee’s most Democratic and most heavily minority county – was also disproportionately affected by the state’s effort to purge inactive voters from its rolls.
Of 170,000 names removed in 2017 for inactivity, 25,000 of those were in Shelby County.
The county has staffed up an election hotline to help process registration for voters whose names do not appear on the rolls. Officials are also trying to call registrants whose applications are deemed as confusing, repetitive or deficient.
Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a Republican, said registration surged throughout the state, but only Shelby County had applications yet to process and so many that were duplicative or incomplete.
“I saw a form yesterday that had a first initial on it and that was it,” he said. “If I put down just my first initial, how could you find me?”
Those whose names are not reflected at the polls can cast provisional ballots, which will be counted if their registrations are found to be acceptable, he said.
Tennessee is not the only state seeing registration fights.
In Georgia, where Democrat Stacey Abrams aims to become the first African-American woman governor in U.S. history, voting rights groups have sued her Republican rival Secretary of State Brian Kemp, saying his office had inappropriately stopped processing more than 50,000 voter registration applications, many from black voters.
In Texas, where Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke is trying to unseat incumbent U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, about 2,400 registration forms filed by an online service have been declared invalid, according to vote.org.
Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office, said online voting is not allowed in Texas and that the state had notified four counties that registration forms filed by the organization were disallowed because they used digital signatures rather than hand-written ones.
And in the Republican-leaning Florida Panhandle, state officials are scrambling to ensure that people whose communities were destroyed by Hurricane Michael would be able to vote.
Voting rights activists contended that many of the fights over voters’ registrations were intended block new minority voters and tip in favor of Republicans closely contested races.
“This is the South,” said Democratic strategist Lisa Quigley. “This is how it’s done.”
Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California; editing by Scott Malone and G Crosse