Judge Orders Tennessee to Provide All Voters Absentee Ballots Amid Pandemic

June 5, 2020 by Dan McCue

The state of Tennessee must provide all 4.1 million of its registered voters with the option of casting ballots by mail during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a state court judge ruled on Thursday.

Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle held the state’s limits on absentee voting during the pandemic constitute “an unreasonable burden on the fundamental right to vote guaranteed by the Tennessee Constitution.”

Though the ruling will almost certainly be appealed, as it stands now Tennessee will have to give voters the option of voting by mail for the state’s senate and congressional primaries on Aug. 6, and for the general election on Nov. 3.

Democratic lawmakers in the state legislature had sought to expand absentee voting by law, but were blocked by Republicans in the chamber.

That led to the underlying lawsuit filed by plaintiffs that included a number of registered voters whose existing health conditions make them especially susceptible to the coronavirus.

In their lawsuit they argued that voters shouldn’t have to choose between their constitutional right to vote and their health.

The state responded by saying while sympathetic to the plaintiffs, it had neither the time nor the money to implement excuse-free absentee voting before the primary.

In addition, they argued, absentee voting is prone to mistakes and increases the opportunity for voter fraud.

Though Lyle said absentee ballots must be provided to every registered voter who wants one, she stopped short of ordering the state to automatically mail one to all registered voters.

Instead, she said, the state must “prominently post on their websites and disseminate to county election officials that voters who do not wish to vote in-person due to the COVID-19 virus situation are eligible to request an absentee ballot by mail or that such voters still have the option to vote in-person during early voting or on Election Day.”

Steven John Mulroy, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement, “We are gratified that the court saw fit to open up absentee voting to all Tennesseans.”

“The court’s decision was thorough, measured, and balanced. Tennesseans should call upon the state to see the wisdom of this decision and stop their efforts to force people to risk their lives in order to vote,” Mulroy said.

State Attorney General Herbert Slatery III also released a statement Thursday.

In it he said the court’s rulings, “while rightly taking into account the safety of Tennessee’s voters and poll workers, failed to appropriately consider the extensive safety measures of the COVID-19 election plan, and, more importantly, gave little weight to the unanimous expertise of state and county election officials that hastily expanding absentee voting is impracticable and risks disenfranchising Tennessee voters.

“The court’s order has taken this important decision away from Tennessee’s state and county election experts and unnecessarily risks voter confusion, potential voter fraud, and election disruption,” Slatery concluded.

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