NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee officials say they plan to enforce a requirement that first-time voters who register by mail cast their ballots in person, despite a judge’s ruling that allows all eligible voters to cast absentee ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.
The state attorney general’s office provided the interpretation in response to a separate federal lawsuit that seeks to block the in-person requirement and two other absentee voting laws before the Aug. 6 primary election.
In early June, a state court judge in Nashville ordered the expansion for all eligible voters during the pandemic. But her instructions did not directly address the first-time voter requirement.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sought to block the in-person requirement in a mid-June court filing, saying it’s unclear if the judge’s order allows that group to vote by mail. The requirement also applies to forms collected during voter registration drives and registrations collected at offices that provide public assistance and services to persons with disabilities, plaintiffs attorneys added.
The state said in its response late last week that it and county officials “have relied on and acted according to the expectation that” the first-time voting requirement “would apply as usual in the upcoming elections.”
If that requirement were blocked for the August primary, the state said “County Election Commissions would be required to canvass their absentee ballot applications to identify any applications that were rejected because they were first-time voters who had registered to vote by mail and then contact those voters so that they could re-submit their applications for an absentee ballot—with a looming deadline of July 30 as the last day to request an absentee ballot.”
It’s unclear exactly how many voters that would rule out for absentee voting in the August primary. In the six months ending in Dec. 2018, including the lead-up to the November 2018 general election, Tennessee reported about 260,000 new registrations of all methods.
Another option Nashville has advertised: Register at the local election office, then vote by mail.
The state says the requirement aligns with federal law that addresses how first-time voters who register to vote by mail must provide identification.
Federal law also lets states offer those voters the alternative of voting by mail if they provide a copy of their ID, a current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or government document including name and address.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs say the requirement unconstitutionally forces first-time voters otherwise eligible to vote absentee to choose between their vote and their health.
Moreover, first-time voters are “more likely to face higher barriers to participation in the democratic process,” including young voters, students and immigrants who recently became naturalized citizens, plaintiffs attorneys wrote.
The state said plaintiffs’s arguments about the three requirements amount to “inconvenience—not loss of access to the right to vote.” The state also criticized the late filing, since voters have been able to request absentee ballots since May 8.
The court challenge also seeks to block misdemeanor penalties for unsolicited distribution of absentee applications by people who don’t work for election commissions and allow voters to correct signature discrepancies in absentee voting.
“Because the State’s signature-verification process, ban on unsolicited distribution of absentee ballot applications, and requirement that first-time voters appear in person exist to ensure the integrity of the election process, the removal of these safeguards is not in the interest of the State or the public,” the state wrote.
Tennessee election officials have opposed and appealed the expansion of absentee eligibility, arguing it is unfeasible for the 2020 elections due to lack of money, personnel and equipment for increased voting by mail, among other concerns.
Instead, they recommended preparations as though all 1.4 million registered voters 60 and older will cast mail-in ballots in the primary. Historically, Tennessee has historically seen less than 2.5% of votes cast by mail, according to the state.
The week after the expansion was ordered, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle 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 hours after the initial ruling.
The state reworked the form and sent local officials updated guidance based on the judge’s new orders.
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