NASHVILLE — Tennessee’s election co-ordinator told his local counterparts Friday not to send absentee voting applications to some Tennesseans just yet, guidance issued the day after a court ordered that all 4.1 million registered voters can vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.
In his email, Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins told local election officials not to send the applications for people citing illness or COVID-19 as a reason. He wrote that the state may be revising its application form and that it will ask an appeals court to block the expansion to allow all voters to cast ballots by mail during the pandemic.
Those seeking to vote by mail for other valid reasons, including all voters 60 or older, can still be sent applications, Goins wrote.
Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle’s ruling late Thursday instructs that anyone who “determines it is impossible or unreasonable to vote in-person at a polling place due to the COVID-19 situation” is eligible to check a box on the absentee ballot about “being hospitalized, ill or physically disabled.”
Officials began accepting applications to vote by mail last month for the upcoming Aug. 6 primary election in Tennessee.
“If a voter calls and ask for an application because of COVID-19, go ahead and take their information so you can send them a form later with the revised language if we update the form or a stay is not granted,” Goins wrote Friday morning. The Tennessee Journal first reported the emails.
The state defended the guidance, saying it complies with the court’s ruling. But the decision drew criticism from a group that sued for the expansion in a separate federal case, calling the election official’s decision “obstruction and defiance.” And Democratic state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro said in a Twitter response that “court orders are not optional.”
“The state’s order is clear,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which filed one of three similar lawsuits. “This kind of obstruction and defiance is intended to have one purpose — making it harder for people to vote.”
In a statement to The Associated Press, Goins said state officials “have communicated to counties that they should maintain requests related to COVID-19 in a way that will allow them to be processed in compliance with the trial court order and any further orders in the case. We are also in the process of updating our website with further guidance in accordance with the order.”
In the email, Goins also told local officials not to update their own forms or put anything on their website about the expansion under the court ruling while his office works on language for its website.
The court’s ruling requires that state officials “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.”
Lyle ruled 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.” The judge wrote that any eligible voter can get an absentee ballot to avoid contracting or passing on COVID-19 in the “upcoming elections during the pendency of pandemic circumstances.”
The decision upends a determination by Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office that fear of catching or unwittingly spreading the virus at the polls wouldn’t qualify someone to vote by mail. The state argued such an expansion wouldn’t be feasible for the 2020 elections, claiming lack of money, personnel and equipment for increased voting by mail, among other concerns.
Jonathan Mattise, The Associated Press