Tennessee high court keeps mail voting expansion amid appeal

JONATHAN MATTISE

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that it will not block a judge’s order offering a by-mail voting option to all eligible voters during the coronavirus pandemic while the state continues to appeal.

The Tennessee high court did agree with the state's wish to fast-track the appeal without a lower appellate court considering it. But a majority of justices voted against stopping the absentee voting expansion pending appeal, dealing a blow to the state's efforts to unravel the expansion as the Aug. 6 primary approaches.

Voters are able to apply for absentee ballots through July 30. The primary election will be headlined by a contested Republican race for an open U.S. Senate seat.

State election officials have opposed the expansion, instead recommending preparations as though all 1.4 million registered voters 60 and older will cast mail-in ballots in the primary. Historically, Tennessee has historically seen less than 2.5% of votes cast by mail, the state has said.

The state argued such an expansion wouldn’t be feasible for the 2020 elections, claiming lack of money, personnel and equipment for increased voting by mail, among other concerns.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said the ruling allows Tennessee voters to vote by mail while the lawsuit continues.

“This decision allows voters to decide for themselves how to safely cast their votes,” Weinberg said.

The court wrote that it carefully considered the state's request for a stay, but “a majority of the Court finds that the State has not met its burden of demonstrating that the balance of the relevant factors weighs in favor of a stay pending appeal.”

After the decision, Julia Bruck, a spokeswoman for Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett, said only that state election officials "appreciate the Supreme Court granting our motion to hear the appeal."

A Nashville judge, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle, ordered the expansion in a ruling earlier this month amid the pandemic.

The week after the decision, she told state officials “shame on you” for not abiding by her order when the state decided to reword its absentee voting applications on its own and hold off on sending absentee applications related to COVID-19 for hours after the initial ruling.

Only a handful of states are not offering by-mail voting for everyone during the pandemic, though two-thirds of states allowed the practice before the outbreak.

The state had since reworked the form and sent local officials updated guidance based on the judge’s new orders.

More than a dozen categories of registered voters can typically cast absentee ballots in Tennessee, from all those 60 and over to people who are ill.