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

NASHVILLE, TN (May 1, 2020) – The state of Tennessee imposes strict limits on eligibility for voting absentee and uses criminal penalties to deter people from assisting voters with obtaining absentee ballots. In the midst of a global pandemic, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Campaign Legal Center filed a lawsuit today on behalf of two individual 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. 

“It is more difficult to cast an absentee ballot in Tennessee than in most other states. 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,” said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Criminalizing the mere provision 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.” 

The A. Phillip Randolph InstituteThe Equity AllianceFree Hearts, the Memphis Central Labor Council and the Tennessee NAACP all face restrictions that prevent necessary voter engagement activities for their members and the community in 2020. Under Tennessee law, the organizations can be punished for giving voters unsolicited applications for an absentee ballot with up to 11 months and 29 days in prison, a fine of up to $2,500, or both.

In past elections, Tennesseans have cast their ballots largely in person. The recent and rapid shift towards voting by mail has revealed how unprepared Tennessee is to ensure all absentee ballots will be 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 their voter registration. This “matching” process is unreliable and prone to mistakes. Because the state does not give voters the opportunity to fix apparent problems with their ballot, this leads to disenfranchisement.

“No voter should have to choose between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote,” said Paul Smith, Vice President of Litigation and Strategy at the Campaign Legal Center. “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.”

To read the complaint, click here.