Tennessee Must Do More To Inform Voters About Mail-In Eligibility, Court Rules

Aug 26, 2020

More Tennesseans will allowed to vote absentee this year because of the threat of COVID-19.
Credit Chas Sisk | WPLN

Tennessee’s election officials have yet to properly inform voters that people in high-risk groups for COVID-19 and their caretakers can request an absentee mail-in ballot this year.

That’s the finding in a new court order Tuesday.

Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle has given the state a deadline — noon on Monday — to revise the form that voters use to ask for a mail-in ballot.

The state must mention COVID-19 by name, and make clear that anyone with an underlying health condition that makes them more susceptible to contracting the virus, including caretakers of such people, have a reason to vote absentee. The state also must tell county-level election officials to do the same.

The chancellor went so far as to provide exact language for the state to use:

I am hospitalized, ill or physically disabled and unable to appear at my polling place to vote (this includes persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which in their determination render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it).

 

I am a caretaker of a hospitalized, ill or physically disabled person (this includes caretakers for persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which in their determination render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it).

The ruling is the latest in a fast-moving legal battle over the right to vote during the pandemic. 

The plaintiffs who sued — represented by the ACLU of Tennessee — say state officials are not adhering to a Tennessee Supreme Court ruling from earlier this month.

The chancellor agrees, noting the state decided not to mention COVID-19 on its forms.

“The result is that a prospective voter looking at the Form has absolutely no way of knowing that the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that if the voter determines for himself/herself that he/she has a ‘special vulnerability to COVID-19’ or is a ‘caretaker’ of such a person, he/she is eligible to vote via absentee ballot during the November election,” the chancellor writes.

She also notes the state has allowed ”confusing and misleading content” to stay on its website. But she stops short of issuing web-related mandates, saying the supreme court’s guidance doesn’t grant her authority beyond the absentee ballot application form.

A statement by Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, says the ruling will ensure that vulnerable voters know exactly how to request a mail-in ballot.

“The state’s delay in making this information clear is yet another example of voter suppression in Tennessee,” she writes.

The spokeswoman for the Tennessee Secretary of State issued a statement to WPLN News about the ruling:

“It is ironic to us that the same Chancellor who chastised us for changing the form is now upset because we did not change the form. The Chancellor is legislating from the bench again.”

A question about whether the form will be updated as ordered was referred to the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office.

This is a developing story.