NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A federal judge on Tuesday said he will not block three Tennessee laws dealing with absentee voting for the Aug. 6 primary election amid the coronavirus pandemic, saying the groups that sought the action should have requested it earlier.
U.S. District Judge Eli Richardson in Nashville issued the order on the laws that bar first-time voters from voting absentee unless they show an ID at the local election office, make the unsolicited distribution of requests for applications for absentee ballots a misdemeanor for people who are not election workers and spell out a signature verification process for those voters. The groups sought a requirement that voters get the chance to fix signature matching issues with their ballots.
Richardson wrote that he will still consider whether to block the laws for the November election.
The ruling follows a decision last month by a state judge to expand absentee voting to most Tennessee voters during the pandemic. The state is appealing that ruling in the Tennessee Supreme Court, where a decision likely needs to happen sooner than later — the first day to request an absentee ballot for the general election is Aug. 5.
In the federal case, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Campaign Legal Center filed an original lawsuit challenging some of the laws on May 1, but sought to have the three blocked for the August primary on June 12.
The first day to request an absentee ballot for the August primary was May 8 and the last day is July 30, though some officials are urging voters to act earlier in case of delays mailing them back. Local election offices must receive completed absentee ballots via mail no later than the close of polls on Election Day.
The judge pointed out that Gov. Bill Lee issued a state of emergency over COVID-19 on March 12.
“As parties allegedly facing severe violations of their constitutional rights as a result of the implicated election laws, especially considering the existing COVID-19 pandemic, Plaintiffs should have been on the proverbial red alert by the time the Governor’s order was issued on March 12,” Richardson wrote.
Julia Bruck, spokesperson for Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett, said the decision “provides some certainty” for the August election. The attorney general’s office likewise commended the judge.
“Judge Richardson noted that courts should not disrupt imminent elections without a powerful reason for doing so,” said Samantha Fisher, spokesperson for Attorney General Herbert Slatery. “Mid-course changes in election procedures so close to an election are not the way to go.”
The ruling that expanded absentee voting during the pandemic didn’t directly address the first-time voter requirement. When the American Civil Liberties Union and others argued Tennessee officials should be held in contempt for enforcing the requirement, the judge declined to do so, saying the groups never asked her about that specific law so she didn’t mention it.
The plaintiffs in the state case said the number of voters affected is “substantial,” with more than 144,000 new registrations in the last half of 2019.
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