NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee officials on Friday sought an appeal and an immediate pause to a court’s ruling this week that lets all 4.1 million registered voters vote by mail during to the coronavirus pandemic, as the state made updates to its materials to reflect the expansion.
The state attorney general’s office filed the request in Davidson County Chancery Court to appeal and stay that court’s temporary injunction that expanded absentee eligibility Thursday.
State Elections Coordinator Mark Goins emailed local election officials Friday evening to let them know new court-ordered language was added to the website and the state absentee application form was updated. The form now has the option: “I have determined it is impossible or unreasonable to vote in-person due to the COVID-19 situation, and therefore qualify as hospitalized, ill, or disabled and unable to appear at my polling place.”
“The county election officials can send out the form. If the court doesn't take any further action, the counties will be sending out ballots,” Goins told The Associated Press in a statement Saturday.
In the court filing, meanwhile, the state argued the ruling will impose a hefty financial burden on the state and counties, put election integrity at risk with the quick turnaround, and create further voter confusion.
"Indeed, in the immediate wake of the June 4 injunction, voters are already reaching out to county election offices seeking guidance about absentee voting," the state's filing says. “But what happens if a voter applies for an absentee ballot based upon fear of COVID-19 and the temporary injunction that permits such an application is later reversed?”
After the late Thursday court ruling, Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins instructed local election officials Friday morning not to send absentee voting applications yet for people citing illness or COVID-19 as a reason while state looked into creating the new application form. He circulated the form that evening.
“Please use this language until further notice,” Goins wrote in the followup email to local officials. “If you are using your own form, this language needs to be added as soon as possible. Please use our form until you can update yours."
The state's court filing Friday also points out that Texas has been blocked pending appeal from implementing an expansion of mail voting, after a federal court last month ruled all 16 million registered voters in the state must be given the option of voting by mail during the pandemic.
Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled Thursday that Tennessee's limits on absentee voting during the pandemic constitute “an unreasonable burden on the fundamental right to vote guaranteed by the Tennessee Constitution.”
Eleven other states have relaxed voting by mail restrictions for the 2020 election, while two-thirds of states have allowed vote by mail for everyone for years, the judge wrote.
The decision upended a determination by Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office that fear of catching or unwittingly spreading the virus at the polls wouldn’t qualify someone to vote by mail. Instead, state election officials have recommended preparations as though all 1.4 million registered voters 60 and older — who are all eligible to vote absentee and make up about 1 of every 3 registered voters — will cast mail-in ballots in the Aug. 6 primary.