State, groups clash over compliance in vote-by-mail ruling

By JONATHAN MATTISE Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Attorneys for voting rights groups want Tennessee officials held in contempt of court over claims they have not immediately let all Tennessee voters get ballots to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic as ordered.

The state, in turn, has contended it is complying and the groups are citing out-dated instructions for local election officials.

That fight over whether Tennessee officials are meeting their obligations on the court-ordered absentee voting option for all 4.1 million of Tennessee's registered voters is headed for a hearing Thursday in Nashville. At the same time, the state is also fighting to have the expansion blocked on appeal.

In a Davidson County Chancery Court filing Monday night, plaintiffs attorneys wrote that the judge didn't order the state to create a new form with a COVID-19 option, though it still did. The judge's ruling directed voters to select an existing illness and disability box.

The new option says, "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 filing points out there's no explanation of what constitutes "impossible or unreasonable."

Additionally, Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins told local election officials Friday not to distribute applications for coronavirus-related requests yet while the new form was being created. Goins also told them to take those voters' information for follow-up for when the form might be updated or if the courts don't pause the absentee expansion, the filing states.

Hours later on Friday, Goins told the local officials to start using the new forms, not long before the state formally asked the judge to stop the absentee-for-all option while the state seeks an appeal.

The court's ruling came down Thursday night, and Goins told local elections officials in the Friday evening email that the state had been "working all day to ensure compliance."

In a statement Saturday, Goins said "county election officials can send out the form," and "if the court doesn't take any further action, the counties will be sending out ballots."

Nashville, for instance, has begun sending out absentee ballots to people who have requested them under the new COVID-19 option, local elections administrator Jeff Roberts said Tuesday.

The plaintiffs attorneys argue the judge should tell the state to comply, including with a requirement to "treat any COVID-based request for an absentee ballot application or absentee ballot the same as a non-COVID based request, including by not creating any special COVID-related category on absentee ballot request forms."

"This unilateral disregard of the Court's Order is designed to place increased scrutiny on voters who wish to do nothing more than to rely on this Court's Order, lead to voter confusion and intimidation, and enable the state to segregate these voters' absentee ballot requests and refrain from processing them," the filing by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and others says.

Goins told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the state is already complying and the plaintiffs aren't citing the most up-to-date guidance.

"We are disappointed that plaintiffs have chosen to pursue a false narrative by leaving out updated guidance we distributed to counties on Friday that is being implemented," Goins said.

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