Victory! Court Orders Tennessee to Allow Citizens to Vote by Mail

NASHVILLE, TN – Today, a federal court has temporarily suspended a law that would have prevented tens of thousands of Tennessee voters from casting a vote by mail. Under the order, any Tennessee voter who registered to vote by mail or online, and will vote for the first time this November, is now permitted to vote absentee if they otherwise meet the state’s eligibility criteria for doing so. Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law had challenged Tennessee’s law as unconstitutional earlier this year.

This change is likely to help tens of thousands of first-time Tennessee voters, including newly-registered college students that are away for school. It also will make voting safer and more accessible for people with “special vulnerability to COVID-19” and seniors over 60 years old, who have recently registered to vote. A prior Tennessee Supreme Court order made clear that those with “special vulnerability to COVID-19” and their caretakers are eligible to vote absentee this year. But the law challenged here would have stopped first-time voters – or voters casting a ballot for the first time in a new residence – from taking advantage of the expanded eligibility criteria.

The court order, signed by Judge Eli Richardson of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, explicitly states that the change must be made without delay in order to be effective for the November 3, 2020 General Election. The court order requires Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett to publicize this change by putting a notice prominently on his website.

“This is an important victory for Tennessee voters wishing to participate in the 2020 election that don’t want to have to choose between their health and exercising their right to vote,” said Danielle Lang, co-director, voting rights and redistricting, at CLC. “Especially during an election held during a pandemic, it is important that anybody be able to vote by absentee and mail ballot to encourage participation.”

“The court recognized that forcing voters to choose between voting and their health violates the Constitution,” said Ezra Rosenberg, co-director, voting rights project at Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “This decision means that first-time voters in Tennessee who registered by mail or on-line – and there are tens of thousands of them, many of whom are young – can vote in November by mail, without risking their health.” 

The case is called A. Philip Randolph Institute v. Hargett.