Tennessee officials: 2020 vote-by-mail for all not feasible

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee officials say they “cannot feasibly implement” a quick shift to let all voters cast their ballots by mail in the 2020 elections, an outcome sought in three lawsuits due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In Davidson County Chancery Court on Friday, Attorney General Herbert Slatery listed off several arguments against the change, saying there are numerous barriers to rapidly implementing statewide absentee voting; other states’ experiences suggest that absentee voting is “fraught with opportunities for error”; and even an unsuccessful try at setting up universal by-mail voting will cost the state millions of dollars.

The filing pushes back on one of the lawsuits, which argue that letting people all vote by mail eliminates the risk of catching COVID-19 or unknowingly spreading it at the polls without showing symptoms. Tennessee is one of several states that have faced lawsuits seeking to let all voters cast ballots by mail. President Donald Trump has been a vocal opponent of universal absentee voting.

Tennessee has more than a dozen categories that qualify someone for an absentee ballot, from being sick to being 60 or older. Quarantining due to potential exposure to the virus or testing positive are valid excuses, the state has said. But Tennessee officials also make clear that being afraid of contracting or spreading COVID-19 are not valid reasons, arguing that kind of expansion for this year would be “detrimental to the public interest.”

“As a result, the practical effect of Plaintiffs’ requested relief is likely to be the functional disenfranchisement of thousands of voters across the State, lost confidence in the outcomes of the upcoming elections, and immense strain on State and county resources,” Slatery wrote in response to the lawsuit led by the Memphis voting rights group #UpTheVote901.

The state says preparations would need to cover both in-person and absentee voting at 100% capacity, since it’s uncertain which method voters will select. The state also says if vote by mail is “hastily” implemented for everyone, voters who “moved and thus do not receive their ballots as well as those who make errors on their ballots are unlikely to have their votes counted.”

About a third of states, including Tennessee, require an excuse to vote absentee, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In at least seven that require excuses, officials have interpreted the pandemic as a valid reason to vote absentee in primary elections, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Tennessee instead is recommending that local election officials prepare as though all 1.4 million registered voters 60 and older will cast mail-in ballots in the August primary. Tennessee has historically seen less than 2.5% of votes cast by mail, the state has said.

At the polls, voters will see hand sanitizer, health warning signs, masked workers and floor markings 6 feet (2 meters) apart to maintain social distancing.

The lawsuit is headed to court Thursday for a hearing.

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

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