Groups: Absentee ruling didn't exclude new Tennessee voters

By JONATHAN MATTISE Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Voting rights groups argue that Tennessee's continued enforcement of a state law barring many first-time voters from casting absentee ballots doesn't comply with a judge's ruling that all eligible voters can vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

The American Civil Liberties Union and others that sued to expand absentee voting filed a motion late Monday to hold Tennessee officials in contempt of court, citing efforts to keep imposing the law that requires new voters who register by mail to vote in person during their first election. First-time voters can cast an absentee ballot only if they show ID at a local election office.

The groups said the state has refused to respond to emails requesting confirmation that the first-time voters are not being excluded. In a separate federal lawsuit that seeks to block the first-time voter requirement, the state said in late June that it and county officials "have relied on and acted according to the expectation that" the requirement "would apply as usual in the upcoming elections."

The groups said the number of voters affected is "substantial," noting there were more than 144,000 new registrations in the last half of 2019.

"Nothing in the Injunction Order carved out an exception for first-time voters who registered by mail or who registered online," the groups wrote Monday. "All that is required for a Tennessean to be able to vote absentee during the COVID-19 pandemic is that the person be an 'eligible Tennessee voter who applies to vote by mail.'"

In response Tuesday, the state called the motion "nothing more than a back-door attempt" to get a change that "was never requested in their amended complaint, that none of the Plaintiffs are entitled to, and more importantly, that was never ordered by this Court." The new absentee request form ordered by the judge still includes language about the first-time voting requirement, the state pointed out.

In early June, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ordered the expansion for all eligible voters during the pandemic. But her instructions did not directly mention the first-time voter requirement. Voters can request absentee ballots until July 30 for the Aug. 6 primary election.

In the federal lawsuit, the state wrote last month that the requirement aligns with federal law that addresses how first-time voters who register by mail must provide identification.

On Monday, the voting rights groups wrote that Tennessee already requires a voter's Social Security number on mail-in registration forms. Tennessee must use that to verify voter information where possible under federal law, which permits, but doesn't require, states to mandate that first-time voters who register by mail vote in person, the filing states.

The week after the expansion was ordered last month, the judge ruled the state had not followed her order when it decided to reword its absentee voting applications on its own and hold off on sending absentee applications related to COVID-19 for hours after the initial ruling.

The state reworked the form and sent local officials updated guidance based on the judge's new orders.

Last week, Elections Coordinator Mark Goins wrote in a court-required filing that all 95 counties have updated their websites or written materials to reflect the expansion of absentee eligibility.

That followed the judge's order last month for Goins to tell counties to update their information because plaintiffs attorneys named 20 counties with absentee request forms or other website mentions that didn't correctly reference COVID-19 as a reason to vote absentee. Those 20 counties displayed updated websites shortly after.

Tennessee election officials have opposed and appealed the expansion of absentee eligibility, arguing it is unfeasible for the 2020 elections and citing some issues experienced in other states.

Instead, they had recommended preparations as though all registered voters 60 and older, a group of 1.4 million voters automatically eligible to vote absentee, will cast mail-in ballots in the primary. Historically, Tennessee has seen less than 2.5% of votes cast by mail, according to the state.

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