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(Nashville, Tenn.)- A federal judge in Tennessee blocked a law that prevented first-time registered voters from using an absentee ballot Wednesday night, expanding vote-by-mail to tens of thousands of residents. Any Tennessee voter who registered to vote-by-mail or online, and who will vote for the first time this November, is now allowed to vote by absentee ballot if they meet the state’s eligibility criteria for doing so. The change will help newly-registered college students who are away for school, and will make voting safer for those with special vulnerability to COVID-19 and elderly residents who have recently registered to vote. 

The court order, which was signed by Judge Eli Richardson of the US District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, clearly states that this change must occur immediately so it is effective for the November 2020 general election. Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett must also publicize this by putting a prominent notice on his website. 

“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 the 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 national Lawyers’ Committee and the Campaign Legal Center challenged the constitutionality of the law earlier this year. A prior Tennessee Supreme Court order expanded vote-by-mail to those with “special vulnerability” to COVID-19 and their caretakers, but did not include first-time voters or voters who are casting their ballot from a new residence for the first time. 

“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 case is A. Philip Randolph Institute v. Hargett