A. Phillip Randolph Institute v. Hargett

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CLC is challenging Tennessee’s strict limitations on who can vote absentee, its criminal penalties to deter people from assisting voters to obtain absentee ballots, and the inability for absentee voters to fix their ballots if they are rejected due to a perceived mismatch with their signature on file.

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On Oct. 19, 2020, a federal appeals court denied a motion by the state of Tennessee to block enforcement of a lower court decision to allow first-time voters who registered to vote by mail or online to vote absentee in this fall’s election if they are otherwise eligible.

While this doesn’t end the case permanently, the issue of whether first...

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About this Case

CLC is challenging Tennessee’s strict limitations on who can vote absentee, its criminal penalties to deter people from assisting voters to obtain absentee ballots, and the inability for absentee voters to fix their ballots if they are rejected due to a perceived mismatch with their signature on file.

ABOUT THIS CASE

Campaign Legal Center (CLC) is representing community organizations A. Phillip Randolph Institute (APRI), The Equity Alliance (TEA), Free Hearts, Memphis Central Labor Council (MCLC), the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP, as well as individuals Sekou Franklin and Kendra Lee, in their efforts to extend the right to vote by mail to all voters so that in the August local elections and November 2020 general election, Tennessee voters will not have to choose between their right to vote and their health in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. The lawsuit also seeks to stop enforcement of laws that make it a crime for organizations to disseminate requests for absentee ballots to voters, and to ensure that the state cannot reject absentee ballots without notifying voters and giving them an opportunity to fix any perceived errors.  

Tennessee is one of a minority of states that still requires voters to provide an excuse before they can vote by mail in any election, and its list of excuses is extremely narrow. It is among an even smaller minority of states who have not removed or expanded that excuse requirement for the upcoming 2020 elections in light of the ongoing public health crisis triggered by the rapid spread of COVID-19.

Because of these unnecessary restrictions, voters like Kendra Lee and Sekou Franklin are ineligible under current laws to receive absentee ballots in the mail. Like them, thousands of other Tennesseans – who are either themselves at heightened risk of complications from COVID-19 or have close family members who are – may be forced into a difficult choice about whether they can afford a serious risk to their health and that of their families’ in order to vote.

Even for those that are eligible to vote absentee, Tennessee law makes it difficult to access that right and to ensure voters’ absentee ballots are counted. The state imposes criminal penalties for anyone other than an election official to give any voter an unsolicited request for an absentee ballot, which is the form a Tennessee voter must complete in order to vote by mail. This makes it more difficult for community organizations – like the five that have signed on as plaintiffs in this lawsuit – to carry out voter engagement activities, particularly during a pandemic. Additionally, even after the voter submits their absentee ballot, there is no guarantee that it will be counted because election officials have discretion to reject the ballot altogether because of perceived discrepancies in the voter’s signature.

On May 1, 2020, CLC filed a lawsuit against Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, Tennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins, the Tennessee State Election Commission, and the Shelby County (Memphis) district attorney general to address these serious deficiencies with Tennessee’s vote by mail system. The lawsuit asks the court to require the state to allow voters who wish to vote absentee in the upcoming elections to do so in order to protect their health. It also asks the court to stop the state from imposing criminal penalties on people who give unsolicited absentee ballot request forms to voters, so that they may exercise their right to vote by mail. And it requests the court to order the state to establish procedures ensuring that before a voter’s absentee ballot is rejected, the voter is given an opportunity to address the perceived deficiency.   

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