Groups sue to expand absentee voting in Tennessee amid virus pandemic

Tennessee

(AP Photo/Steve Karnowski)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Several groups and two voters are suing the state of Tennessee to allow any voter to cast an absentee ballot this year over fears that people might contract or unwittingly spread the coronavirus in person at the polls.

The federal lawsuit filed Friday in Nashville takes aim at the reasons required for a voter to get an absentee ballot in Tennessee, ranging from being at least 60 years old to being sick, hospitalized or physically disabled.

The lawsuit says Tennessee’s list of qualified excuses is one of the country’s most restrictive and does not allow voters to get absentee ballots out of fear of contracting COVID-19 or transmitting the virus as an unknowing carrier without symptoms.

Voting during a pandemic

“Simply put, the Constitution does not permit the State to require voters to jeopardize their health and safety, and the health and safety of their loved ones, in order to exercise their fundamental right,” the lawsuit states. “Tennessee voters must be permitted to cast their ballots without subjecting themselves to unnecessary exposure to a pandemic disease.”

Democrats and voting rights groups have filed similar lawsuits seeking to expand mail and absentee voting options in states including Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, Missouri and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has been opposed to federal attempts to prod states to relax absentee voting restrictions for this fall’s elections.

With the lawsuits working through the courts, Wisconsin officials said this week that more than 50 people who voted in person or worked the polls during its election in early April have tested positive for COVID-19 so far. Several had other possible exposure sources as well.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Campaign Legal Center filed the Tennessee suit on behalf of two voters and five organizations, including Tennessee’s NAACP chapter and the Nashville African American voting rights group The Equity Alliance.

Lawsuit seeks to block laws that prevent helping voters request absentee ballots

The lawsuit also seeks to block two other Tennessee laws. One makes it a misdemeanor for civic engagement groups or people to help voters obtain requests for applications for absentee ballots. Another does not give voters the chance to fix absentee ballots rejected under signature mismatch procedures.

“Our organization wants to be able to proactively assist voters with voting by absentee ballot without the threat of criminal prosecution,” Charlane Oliver, co-founder of The Equity Alliance, said in a statement.

To date, Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office has not pushed for more widespread absentee voting due to the pandemic. His office has said it would be a huge change to make in a short period, particularly in a state accustomed to in-person voting.

Uptick in absentee ballots is expected

Under the current law, an uptick in ballots from those who are ill or at least 60 years old is still expected, Hargett spokeswoman Julia Bruck has said.

Still, Bruck said last month that “plans are evolving not only by the day but by the hour as we learn more about the epidemic and its effects.”

Tennessee voters can request absentee ballots starting May 8 for the Aug. 6 primary election. Early voting starts July 17.

Hargett’s office declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Tennessee has two absentee categories for sicknesses. To be placed on a permanent absentee voting list, certain sick, hospitalized and disabled voters needs a doctor’s note signed under penalty of perjury that the local election office must receive a least a week before the election.

Others with temporary illnesses don’t need a doctor’s sign-off to request absentee ballots for a specific election, Hargett’s office said. Those voters can be hospitalized, ill or physically disabled, or caretakers of certain vulnerable voters.

GOP-dominated Legislature voted down expanded absentee voting

The GOP-led Legislature in March voted down amendments that aimed to expand absentee voting due to the pandemic.

In Nashville, local election administrator Jeff Roberts confirmed in a meeting Friday that if someone has COVID-19, that voter won’t need a doctor’s note to obtain an absentee ballot. Roberts said he hasn’t heard anything from the secretary of state’s office that specifies what counts as an illness for people seeking absentee ballots.

Roberts said he’ll likely advise people to consult their doctors.

“If you have a condition that you think is an illness or a chronic illness, touch base with your physician,” Roberts said, adding “I don’t think it’d be our place to question” the doctor’s determination.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms while for others, it can cause more severe illness, including life-threatening pneumonia.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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