Groups sue to expand absentee voting in Tennessee amid virus

Associated Press • May 1, 2020 at 7:23 PM

NASHVILLE — Several groups and two voters are suing the state of Tennessee to allow any voter to cast an absentee ballot this year due to fear that people might contract or unwittingly spread the coronavirus in person at the polls.

The federal lawsuit filed Friday in Nashville takes aim at the reasons required for a voter to get an absentee ballot in Tennessee, ranging from being at least 60 years old to being sick, hospitalized or physically disabled.

The lawsuit says Tennessee’s list of qualified excuses is one of the most restrictive in the country, saying it does not allow voters to get absentee ballots out of fear of contracting COVID-19 or transmitting the virus as an unknowing carrier without symptoms.

“Simply put, the Constitution does not permit the State to require voters to jeopardize their health and safety, and the health and safety of their loved ones, in order to exercise their fundamental right to vote,” the lawsuit states. “Tennessee voters must be permitted to cast their ballots without subjecting themselves to unnecessary exposure to a pandemic disease.”

Democrats and voting rights groups have filed similar lawsuits seeking to expand mail and absentee voting options in several states, including Nevada, South Carolina, Texas, Missouri and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has been opposed to federal attempts to prod states to relax absentee voting restrictions for this fall’s elections.

With the lawsuits proceeding through the court system, Wisconsin officials said this week that more than 50 people who voted in person or worked the polls during its election in early April have tested positive for COVID-19 so far, with several who had other possible exposure sources as well.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Campaign Legal Center filed the Tennessee lawsuit on behalf of two voters and five organizations, including Tennessee’s NAACP chapter and the Nashville African American voting rights group The Equity Alliance.

The lawsuit also seeks to block two other Tennessee laws. One makes it a misdemeanor for civic engagement groups or people to help voters obtain requests for applications for absentee ballots. Another does not give voters the chance to fix absentee ballots rejected due to signature mismatch procedures.

To date, Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office has not pushed for more widespread absentee voting due to the pandemic. His office has said it would be a huge change to make in a short period, particularly in a state that is in the habit of voting in person. Under the current law, an uptick in ballots from those who are ill or at least 60 years old is still expected, Hargett spokeswoman Julia Bruck has said.

Still, Bruck said last month that “plans are evolving not only by the day but by the hour as we learn more about the epidemic and its effects.” Voters in Tennessee can request absentee ballots starting May 8 for the Aug. 6 primary election, with early voting starting July 17.

Tennessee has two categories of absentee voters due to an illness. To get placed on a permanent absentee voting list, certain sick, hospitalized and disabled voters need to get a doctor to sign a note under penalty of perjury that the local election office must receive a least a week before the election.

Others with temporary illnesses don’t need a sign-off from doctors to request absentee ballots for a specific election, Hargett’s office said. Those voters can be hospitalized, ill or physically disabled, or caretakers of certain vulnerable voters.

The GOP-led Legislature in March voted down amendments that aimed to expand absentee voting due to the pandemic.

In Nashville, local election coordinator Jeff Roberts confirmed in a meeting Friday that if someone has COVID-19, that voter won’t need a doctor’s note to obtain an absentee ballot. Roberts said he hasn’t heard anything specific from the secretary of state’s office that specifies what counts as an illness for people seeking absentee ballots.

Roberts says he’ll likely advise people to consult their doctors.

“If you have a condition that you think is an illness or a chronic illness, touch base with your physician,” Roberts said. “If they tell you that it fits that definition, I don’t think it’d be our place to question it.”

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in a few weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including life-threatening pneumonia.

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

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