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Tennessee Justices Say Voters Can't Request Mail-In Ballots Due To COVID-19 Fears

The ruling overturned an earlier expansion for absentee ballots after some voters sued, saying they were concerned about the pandemic.

Tennessee’s Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the option for all eligible voters to cast their ballots by mail due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In a 4-1 decision, the state’s high court said voters’ fears of COVID-19 could not be cited as a reason to request an absentee ballot after a judge said in June all of Tennessee’s 4.1 million registered voters should be given the option to vote by mail.

“With respect to those plaintiffs and persons who do not have special vulnerability to COVID-19 or who are not caretakers for persons with special vulnerability to COVID-19, we hold that the trial court erred in issuing the temporary injunction,” the state Supreme Court said in its ruling.

Absentee ballots filed for a primary election on Thursday remain valid. The decision came the day before voters could begin requesting absentee ballots for November’s general election.

Tennessee requires voters to provide one of 14 excuses to request an absentee ballot. They include provisions for voters 60 and older, those outside the country during early voting periods and Election Day, and those hospitalized or physically disabled. Voters had filed lawsuits asking the courts to expand the medical excuses to include concerns about their safety amid the pandemic.

Although that expansion was overturned, the court did say that voters with “a special vulnerability to COVID-19” or their caretakers do satisfy the requirements to request an absentee ballot.

Justice Sharon Lee was the lone dissenting voice, saying the ruling didn’t go “far enough” to safeguard voters in the state.

“All qualified Tennessee voters — like voters in forty-five other states — should be allowed to apply to vote by absentee mail ballot during the unprecedented and deadly COVID-19 pandemic that is gripping our community, state, nation, and world,” she said in her opinion.

The state’s Republican secretary of state, Tre Hargett, cheered the news after local lawmakers initially opposed lawsuits meant to expand vote-by-mail earlier this year as the pandemic first began to spread across the nation.

“I appreciate the Tennessee Supreme Court agreeing with our analysis of Tennessee election law,” Hargett, said on Twitter.

Hargett has advised his office to prepare for a massive volume of absentee ballots, The Associated Press noted, saying election officials should assume all registered voters 60 and older — about 1.4 million people — will cast mail-in ballots.

AP reported that Tennessee usually sees less than 2.5% of votes cast by mail.

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