Tennessee Must Ease Excuse Requirement for Absentee Ballot During Pandemic

Lawsuit seeks to ensure voters can vote safely by mail in the upcoming elections and ensure ballots count

NASHVILLE, TN – The state of Tennessee imposes strict limits on eligibility for voting absentee and even uses criminal penalties to deter people from assisting voters with obtaining absentee ballots. In the midst of a global pandemic, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee) filed a lawsuit today on behalf of two qualified voters and organizations whose many members are not eligible for vote by mail under current law, but wish to avoid exposing themselves or elderly family members to coronavirus.

Other plaintiffs include five organizations facing restrictions preventing them from carrying out necessary voter engagement activities for their members and the community in 2020. Under Tennessee law, the organizations can be punished for giving voters unsolicited requests for an absentee ballot with up to 11 months and 29 days in prison, a fine of up to $2,500, or both.

Typically, Tennesseans have cast their ballots largely in person. Recently, the rapid shift towards voting by mail has revealed how unprepared Tennessee is to ensure all absentee ballots are counted in the upcoming elections. The state gives election officials discretion to reject absentee ballots when elections officials decide, in their judgment, that the voter’s signature on their ballot doesn’t match the voter’s signature on file with the voter registration. This “matching” process is unreliable and prone to mistakes, and because the state does not give voters any opportunity to fix apparent problems with their ballot, leads to disenfranchisement.

“No voter should have to choose between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote,” said Paul Smith, vice president at CLC. “In light of the ongoing public health crisis, Tennessee’s failure to accommodate voters is threatening the ability of citizens and organizations to participate in the civic process.”

“It is more difficult to cast an absentee ballot in Tennessee than in most other states,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “This is bad enough in normal times, but Tennessee’s laws are particularly offensive during a time when more voters than ever before need to vote by mail because of the current public health crisis.  Criminalizing the mere providing of a request for an absentee ballot is outrageous under any circumstances. Failure to provide a procedure for voters whose absentee ballots were rejected because their signatures did not match signatures on record is fundamentally unfair. And not allowing voters to vote by absentee ballot if they fear that they or their loved ones would contract COVID-19 if they vote in person effectively takes away their right to vote.”

About the Plaintiffs:

Individual plaintiffs:

  • Sekou Franklin – a  Davidson County, TN resident who is not eligible to vote by mail, but fears voting in-person in the August and November elections because he does not want to catch and then bring COVID-19 home to his elderly father.
  • Kendra Lee – a Davison County, TN resident who has asthma and bronchitis, and does not want to vote in-person in the upcoming elections because of the risk of health complications from potentially catching COVID-19.

 Organizational plaintiffs:

  • A. Phillip Randolph Institute – a Memphis, TN-based nonprofit political advocacy and membership organization that works to strengthen ties between the labor movement and the community.
  • The Equity Alliance – a Nashville, TN-based nonpartisan nonprofit organization that seeks to equip citizens with tools and strategies to engage in the civic process and empower them to take action on issues affecting their daily lives.
  • Free Hearts – a Nashville, TN-based nonprofit led by formerly incarcerated women that provides support, education, and advocacy to families impacted by incarceration.
  • Memphis Central Labor Council – a Memphis, TN-based association that acts as an umbrella organization for 41 affiliate unions based in western Tennessee.
  • The Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP – a Jackson, TN-based multi-racial nonprofit organization that seeks to eliminate race-based discrimination across the state and oversees local branches in the state.

*This was filed with the SRVH law firm.