The Look in Brief

Lawsuit means COVID caution is reason for absentee ballot

By: - June 8, 2020 10:20 am
(Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

All Tennessee voters can now request an absentee ballot from their county election commission following a Nashville judge’s ruling last week in a lawsuit filed by plaintiffs who said they did not want to vote in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled that voters can check the box that says they are “hospitalized, ill, or disabled” and unable to appear at their polling place for this election.

The state appealed Hobbs Lyle’s ruling late Friday and requested a stay of her order. The state also requested an expedited hearing.

Late Friday, the state Election Commission added language to the section of its website concerning absentee ballot requests that mirrored Hobbs Lyle’s ruling.

Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle (Photo: Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts)

Under the list of reasons for voting by mail, the state election website added, “You have determined it is impossible or unreasonable to vote in-person at a polling place due to the COVID-19 situation, and therefore qualify as hospitalized, ill, or disabled and unable to appear at your polling place.” 

Hobbs Lyle’s ruling made Tennessee the 46th state to expand absentee voting, with many states doing so in response to the pandemic.

The Davidson County lawsuit was filed by plaintiffs with health conditions that don’t qualify them to request absentee ballots. The plaintiffs argued they would be taking great risks to vote in person because they are prone to severe symptoms should they contract COVID-19. Prior to the lawsuit only voters 60 and older could request absentee ballots.

Lawyers representing Tennessee argued it is not logistically feasible to expand absentee ballots. The state said it did not know how many requests would be filed and therefore had to prepare as if 100 percent of registered voters would vote in person and 100 percent of registered voters would file absentee requests.

Hobbs Lyle, who was appointed to the bench by Republican Gov. Don Sundquist in 1996, rejected that notion, pointing out the state’s own expert witness did not agree with those percentages.

The state said the opportunity for voter fraud would increase and voters would risk disenfranchisement because their votes could be disqualified due to voter error if the mail-in ballots are filled out incorrectly, which happens more frequently with first-time absentee voters.


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Nate Rau
Nate Rau

Nate Rau has a granular knowledge of Nashville’s government and power brokers, having spent more than a decade with the Tennessean, navigating the ins and outs of government deals as an investigative reporter. During his career at The Tennessean and The City Paper, he covered the music industry and Metro government and won praise for hard-hitting series on concussions in youth sports and deaths at a Tennessee drug rehabilitation center. In a state of Titans and Vols fans, Nate is an unabashed Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cubs fan.