Two legal organizations have filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State Tre Hargett in an effort to overturn Tennessee’s “unconstitutional” restrictions on absentee voting.
The lawsuit was filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Campaign Legal Center. The two groups filed the complaint on behalf of several Tennessee organizations “whose many members are not eligible for vote by mail under current law.”
The lawsuit takes issue with three provisions in Tennessee’s election laws, including the excuse requirement for absentee voting, criminal restrictions on helping people obtain absentee ballots, and the authority of election judges to reject absentee ballots if a voter’s signature on their ballot doesn’t match the signature on their voter registration form.
The complaint asks the courts to declare all three of these provisions unconstitutional for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.
“These restrictions severely burden Tennesseans’ exercise of their right to vote and Organizational Plaintiffs’ right to participate in voter engagement activity,” states the lawsuit. “In light of the ongoing public health crisis, Tennessee’s failure to make the already-existing mail voting system available to all voters so that they do not have to choose between their right to vote and their health imposes an undue burden on Tennesseans’ exercise of their right to vote.”
According to the lawsuit, Tennessee is one of just seven states that “continues to require their voters to provide an excuse before they may vote by absentee ballot.”
“Other states, that in normal circumstances maintain similarly limited eligibility requirements for voting absentee, have recognized that the extraordinary circumstances caused by the pandemic require loosening of those requirements,” says the lawsuit.
Under current law, it is a misdemeanor for any person who is not an employee of an election commission to give an unsolicited absentee ballot application to a voter, punishable by up to 11 months in jail or a $2,500 fine.
Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called this provision “outrageous.”
“It is more difficult to cast an absentee ballot in Tennessee than in most other states. This is bad enough in normal times, but Tennessee’s laws are particularly offensive during a time when more voters than ever before need to vote by mail because of the current public health crisis,” she said in a press release.
Clarke said it is “fundamentally unfair” to not provide voters with an opportunity to correct absentee ballots that are rejected because of faulty signatures.
“And not allowing voters to vote by absentee ballot if they fear that they or their loved ones would contract COVID-19 if they vote in person effectively takes away their right to vote,” she added.
Paul Smith, vice president of litigation and strategy for the Campaign Legal Center, said “no voter should have to choose between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote.”
“In light of the ongoing public health crisis, Tennessee’s failure to accommodate voters is threatening the ability of citizens and organizations to participate in the civic process,” he said.
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