(The Center Square) – The Tennessee Supreme Court refused to immediately block a lower-court order for the state to provide mail-in ballots to all eligible voters during the 2020 primaries and general election, but it will fast-track the appeal process by taking jurisdiction over the case, rather than sending it to an appeals court first.
Earlier this month, a court ruled that Tennessee must provide mail-in ballots to all eligible voters because of COVID-19 health concerns. The order, which will stay in place while awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision, requires the state to provide guidance to local election officials so they can issue the ballots to all voters for the Aug. 6 primary and to conduct a public information campaign so voters know they can cast absentee ballots without citing a reason.
“This decision means people can continue requesting and voting absentee while the appeal is pending,” Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “Once again, the courts have recognized that no one should be forced to choose between their health and their vote. This is a big victory for voters in Tennessee.”
The state requested that the Supreme Court block the order immediately because of the upcoming elections. Although the Supreme Court did not block the order, the Tennessee Attorney General's office office looks forward to a resolution.
“We are encouraged the Tennessee Supreme Court took the issue and expedited the appeal,” Samantha Fisher, a spokeswoman for Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III, told The Center Square. “We look forward to a resolution as the August 6th primary approaches.”
Slatery has been critical of the order, saying the court did not consider that the state is taking safety to address COVID-19-related health concerns and rushing a no-excuse absentee system could unnecessarily cause voter confusion, potential voter fraud and election disruption.
Republican leadership has generally been critical of no-excuse absentee voting because of voter fraud concerns. Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Williamson County, said the state’s guidance for election day solves the health concerns.
“State election officials have issued detailed guidance to help ensure all voters are safe utilizing Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other health guidelines,” Johnson said in a statement. “A lot of these guidelines apply the public safety lessons already learned to mitigate spread of the disease like putting tape on the floors to keep voters six feet apart, plexiglass shields of the sort we are now seeing in grocery stores, surgical gloves, masks, placing voting machines within social distancing guidelines, and sanitizers at our polling places.”
Johnson said absentee ballots are already available for most at-risk citizens, such as anyone 60 years old or older, anyone disabled, anyone hospitalized, and anyone who has a letter from a physician stating the person is medically unable to vote in person.
Democratic leadership has urged the state to stop fighting the lawsuit and to just comply with the order. During the legislative session, House Democrats introduced amendments to legislation that would have established no-excuse absentee voting, but failed to get enough votes.