Justices overturn Tennessee mail vote expansion for November

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the option for all eligible voters to vote by mail in November due to COVID-19.

The ruling nixes a June expansion order by a lower court that state election officials opposed. The decision came the day voters could start requesting absentee ballots for the general election.

It restores Tennessee’s excuse-based system for November, with COVID-19 related additions that include exposure-based quarantining, caretaking and underlying health conditions. The ruling requires the state to provide “appropriate guidance” to voters regarding the underlying health conditions qualification, which was first discussed by the state during oral arguments last week.

Justices wrote that the decision doesn’t impact ballots for Thursday’s primary election.

“We find that the State’s interests in the efficacy and integrity of the election process are sufficient to justify the moderate burden placed on the right to vote of those plaintiffs and persons who neither have special vulnerability to COVID-19 nor are caretakers for persons with special vulnerability to COVID-19,” Justice Cornelia Clark wrote in the opinion.

Four justices voted in favor of overturning the expansion. Justice Sharon Lee opposed the move, but supported the absentee voting option for people with “underlying medical or health conditions that make them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or if they are vulnerable to greater health risks should they contract COVID-19, or if they care for someone with such a condition.”

“This ruling does not go far enough,” Lee wrote. “All qualified Tennessee voters — like voters in forty-five other states — should be allowed to apply to vote by absentee mail ballot during the unprecedented and deadly COVID-19 pandemic that is gripping our community, state, nation, and world.”

Only a handful of states are not offering by-mail voting for everyone during the pandemic, though two-thirds of states allowed the practice before it.

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