Political organizations sue TN over law making it a crime to provide someone with an absentee request form

(Photo: iStock/Getty Images)
(Photo: iStock/Getty Images)

A group of political organizations and voting rights advocates sued the state of Tennessee in federal court on Friday over a law making it a felony to provide a voter with an absentee request form.

The plaintiffs claim the law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, protecting free speech.

Under Tennessee law, it is a felony for someone, other than election commission officials, gives “an application for an absentee ballot to any person.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Nashville, are the Memphis and West Tennessee AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, the Tennessee conference of the NAACP, Nashville-based voting rights nonprofit organization the Equity Alliance, and political engagement nonprofit groups the Memphis A. Phillip Randolph Institute and Free Hearts.

The issue of absentee voting is in the forefront this year because Tennessee, like many states, has expanded who may request an absentee ballot because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, the issue has also been litigated in court, leading to a wide expansion of absentee voting rights for the August election, where any voter afraid of contracting COVID-19 could request an absentee ballot.

The state Supreme Court reversed that ruling by a Davidson County judge, but not before the state switched positions and said voters with certain pre-existing conditions making them vulnerable to the virus could request an absentee ballot. Tennessee was supposed to inform voters of this new interpretation of who may request a ballot, but failed to do so, leading to Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ordering yet another update to the state’s absentee request form.

The plaintiffs claim the goal should be more political participation, not less, and that the law forbidding activists from providing absentee request forms suppresses voter turnout.

“This law serves no purpose, and, by unreasonably restricting the manner in which (the plaintiffs) can engage and encourage the voting public, imposes an extraordinarily burdensome restraint on (the plaintiffs’) right of free speech,” the plaintiffs argue in their lawsuit.

The political groups are asking the federal court to declare Tennessee’s law unconstitutional and to block Secretary of State Tre Hargett and administrator of elections Mark Goins from enforcing it.

“The threat of criminal sanctions for participating in such common voter engagement activity, which is necessary to effectively engage broad swaths of Tennessee’s voting population, severely burdens the plaintiffs’ and their members’ First Amendment rights,” the lawsuit claims.