by Jonathan Mattise
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) — A judge has ruled that Tennessee officials have to change the absentee ballot application again to reflect their promise to let voters cast mail ballots if someone in their household has an underlying health condition that makes them more susceptible to COVID-19.
In her decision Friday, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle sided with arguments from the plaintiffs in a months-long absentee voting lawsuit. They pointed out that a deputy attorney general made the eligibility commitment for co-habitants in response to multiple questions in front of the state Supreme Court last month.
The change is the latest ordered in court for Tennessee’s excuse-based absentee voting system, which has drawn heightened attention due to the jump in demand for mail voting during pandemic times.
Steven Mulroy, an attorney for plaintiffs in the case, said it now appears that roughly two-thirds or more of Tennessee voters can choose to vote by mail for November.
The form was updated on the secretary of state’s website Monday to incorporate the latest change.
“Pretty much, if you’re not a twenty-something living with only twenty-somethings who never checks in on grandma, you’re probably absentee eligible,” Mulroy said.
In June, Lyle ordered that all eligible voters should have an absentee voting option during the health crisis, and that ruling was carried out during the Aug. 6 primary.
Then the state Supreme Court overturned the absentee expansion last month, restoring the excuse-based absentee voting system and citing the state’s promise — made for the first time in front of the high court — that people can vote by mail if they believe they or someone in their care face a higher risk of COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions.
Justices did not specifically make note of housemates of people with underlying health conditions. However, they did write that the state has to provide voters guidance that is “consistent with the State’s acknowledged interpretation” of who can vote by mail.
Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office said it’s been following the law and the Supreme Court ruling. But with the absentee form change about housemates, Hargett’s office said the judge is changing wording on the absentee application that she ordered.
After the Supreme Court ruling, the state removed mentions of COVID-19 from the form. Lyle then ordered the state to update it to note the disease and eligibility due to underlying conditions and caretaking.
“To be unequivocally clear, Chancellor Lyle is amending her own language – not language that state election officials wrote,” Hargett spokesperson Julia Bruck said. “In addition, the new language she added is nowhere in state law or the well-written, unambiguous Tennessee Supreme Court opinion.”
Hargett’s office has pointed to guidance from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention in advising voters about underlying conditions. The CDC says conditions that increase the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 range from cancer to obesity, while those that might increase the risk range from asthma to smoking.
Under its excuse-based system, Tennessee typically requires voters to fit into one of more than a dozen categories to vote by mail, ranging from being 60 or older to being sick.
Tennessee also can’t enforce another restriction on absentee voting due to a court ruling. This month, a federal judge blocked a state law that requires first-time voters to show an ID at the local election office first if they want to vote by mail.
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Jonathan Mattise is a reporter with The Associated Press.