Commentary: Tennesseans with Sick Family Members Forced into Impossible Choice Under Restrictive State Election Law

(Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images)
(Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images)

In the COVID-19 era, mandatory in-person voting is a public health risk for people that depend on the assistance of family members to meet daily needs. My father relies on me. People looking after family members with illnesses shoulder an enormous burden. That burden should not force us to sit on the sideline during the 2020 election.

I hope to participate in the statewide elections in August and general election in November, but the first day to request an absentee ballot was on May 8 and I worry that I don’t qualify under Tennessee’s narrow list of acceptable “excuses”, unless the courts intervene.

By some accounts, I am a surprising and unlikely plaintiff in a court case at the intersection of ballot access and public health. I am a college professor, healthy, relatively young, and live in Nashville, which has a robust health care infrastructure. Yet, like other Tennesseans, I assist a sick family member and feel responsible for their well-being. I moved my father from California to Tennessee a decade ago to find him a wheelchair accessible apartment within walking distance of me. 

My father is at increased risk of complications from COVID-19 given the combination of a degenerative, neurological disorder and his diabetes. As a result, he’s taking precautions to avoid the virus, but if I vote in person this year, he might still get it. My position is not unlike that of many Tennesseans, who live with or look after family members with a heightened risk condition, like asthma, lung disease, or diabetes. They aren’t eligible to vote by mail themselves, but showing up to a crowded in-person polling place puts their family members at risk.

Helping to care for my father might force me, like many other Tennesseans, to choose between exercising my civic duty and the safety of my family – simply because I reside in Tennessee – which has the third lowest percentage of ballots cast by mail in America (only West Virginia and Kentucky ranked lower). The vast majority of states aren’t putting its residents in this difficult position.

Helping to care for ill family members can lead to trauma, burnout, and emotional distress as well, particularly for folks that are not trained to do this work.  Although I am a man, people looking after family members with illnesses are disproportionately women.  People like me, even though we aren’t given a formal title, are charged with the daily responsibilities of making life-altering decisions for disabled and sick family members.  As a Nashville transplant with no extended family in the city, I carry the sole responsibility in my family for monitoring my father’s health.

It was the disturbing memories from the Wisconsin primary in April that motivated me to seek solutions to this injustice. Dozens of reported cases of coronavirus were confirmed in the days following that election. This was preventable. 

To avoid a similar outcome to what played out in Wisconsin, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law have sued Tennessee for preventing access to vote by mail for most voters. I am one of two individual plaintiffs in the case. We are both concerned that mandatory in-person voting will increase the likelihood that voters and poll workers may contract the virus and spread the contagion to us or our immediate family members. The A. Philip Randolph Institute, The Equity Alliance, Free Hearts, Memphis Central Labor Council, and The Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP – all of them representing or working with vulnerable populations – are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit. 

Although my father is semi-independent and has a professional part-time caregiver, I am responsible for an assortment of tasks: meal preparations, insulin preps, grocery shopping, household chores and maintenance, visits to the doctors and dentist, prescription drug management, paying bills, and more. If I contract the virus, I would have to resort to a contingency plan and find a full-time caregiver to fill in with these tasks. Given my father’s pre-existing conditions, if I passed on the virus to him, his chances of recovery would be slim if he needs critical hospital care.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced states and localities to consider expanding remote voting options to protect public health, an increased percentage of Americans cast their votes by mail in each recent election. Nationally, there were 42.5 million votes cast by mail in 2018. In a presidential election year under the threat of a viral pandemic, that number is expected to surge. This raises the importance of having an accessible vote-by-mail system.

Vote by mail is an instrument of democracy that is desperately needed in Tennessee. Fixing it would help balance the need to exercise our civic responsibility with everyone’s interest in protecting public health. Given the strides made in other states to make voting accessible, COVID-19 should not stop Tennesseans from casting a ballot from the safety of their home if that’s the right choice for them and their family.