Tennessee officials want mail voting appeal fast-tracked

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee officials are seeking a fast-tracked decision by the state Supreme Court to block the absentee-voting option for all eligible voters that a judge has ordered during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Tennessee attorney general’s office filed the motion Friday evening, saying it’s crucial with the Aug. 6 primary election looming for the Supreme Court to take over the appeal and the state’s request to stop the expansion. A lower appellate court hasn’t ruled on the appeal yet, which the state also filed Friday.

A Nashville judge, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle, ordered the expansion earlier this month. Last week, she told state officials “shame on you” for not abiding by her order when the state decided to reword its absentee voting applications on its own and hold off on sending absentee applications related to COVID-19 for most of the day after the initial ruling. The state has since reworked the form and sent local officials updated guidance based on the judge’s new order.

State election officials have opposed the expansion, instead recommending preparations as though all 1.4 million registered voters 60 and older will cast mail-in ballots in the primary.

More than a dozen categories of registered voters can typically cast absentee ballots in Tennessee, from all those 60 and over to people who are ill.

Meanwhile on Friday, groups that have filed a federal lawsuit seeking a COVID-19 expansion of by-mail voting also sought three other changes to Tennessee’s absentee voting before the August primary.

The motion for a preliminary injunction seeks to block the misdemeanor offense spelled out for anyone other than an election commission employee who gives “an unsolicited request for application for absentee ballot to any person.”

It requests a requirement that absentee voters have a chance to fix signature matching issues with their ballots.

And it seeks to ensure the state won’t apply a law requiring first-time voters who register by mail to vote in person in their first election. The filing, spearheaded by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, says it is “not clear” if the state court’s order definitively applies to those first-time voters.

A spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, a leader in the state case, said the judge didn’t explicitly address first-time voters who registered by mail.

“Our legal team is still determining the implications for first-time voters and working to defend the decision on appeal,” said state ACLU chapter spokesperson Lindsay Kee.

State officials have not said how they think the court’s decision affects that requirement.

The secretary of state’s website says “if you are a registered voter and do not wish to vote in-person due to the COVID-19 situation, you are eligible to request an absentee ballot by mail” under the court’s order.

On Monday, Lyle also ordered that the state tell county election officials that “COVID-based requests for absentee ballot applications or for absentee ballots shall be treated the same as non-COVID-based requests for absentee ballot applications or absentee ballots.”

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

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