Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled last week that 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.” This ruling means Tennessee must give all of its 4.1 million registered voters the option to cast ballots by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, a judge ruled Thursday.
“In this time of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and its contagion in gatherings of people, almost all states – both Republican and Democrat – are providing their citizens the health protection of voting by mail option,” Lyle wrote. “This includes southern states such as Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas, and Tennessee’s neighboring state of Kentucky and nearby West Virginia. The governors, state officials, and legislators in those states have spearheaded efforts to expand access to voting by mail to protect their citizens’ health during the pandemic.”
The Nashville ruling, which will most likely be appealed, requires the state to “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.”
The Tennessee Secretary of State website has already posted the notice despite Secretary Tre Hargett’s argument such an expansion. He has insisted it would not be feasible for the 2020 elections, claiming lack of money, personnel, and equipment for increased voting by mail.
Before the ruling, Tennessee already recognized more than a dozen reasons to qualify someone for an absentee ballot, from being sick to being 60 or older. Quarantining due to potential exposure to the virus or testing positive are valid excuses, the state has said. But Tennessee officials also make clear that being afraid of contracting or spreading COVID-19 are not valid reasons, arguing that kind of expansion for this year would be “detrimental to the public interest.”
The state is recommending local election officials prepare as though all 1.4 million registered voters 60 and older will cast mail-in ballots in the August primary. Tennessee has historically seen less than 2.5% of votes cast by mail, the state has said.The state court lawsuits were led by #UpTheVote901 and by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.
If they prefer, voters will still have the option to vote in person during early voting or on Election Day. Polls will likely have health warning signs, masked workers, floor markings to maintain social distancing, and of course, plenty of hand sanitizer.Tennessee election officials have based their preparation around the habits of the 97.5% of Tennessee voters who vote in-person, so adjusting to the increased absentee mail-in ballots is expected to be extremely challenging.