Court rules state must provide absentee ballots for all elections in 2020 due to COVID-19

In a victory for voting rights, a Tennessee court has ruled the state must make absentee voting available to every eligible voter for all elections in 2020, including the August 6 primary and November 3 general election.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Tennessee, and Dechert LLP sought the order due to the highly contagious and deadly COVID-19 outbreak and the risks it poses to many voters. The case was brought on behalf of several Tennesseans whose health would be in jeopardy if forced to vote in person while COVID-19 is spreading.

While most states allow any eligible voter to cast an absentee ballot, Tennessee requires voters to provide an ‘excuse’ to do so from a very narrow list of criteria; practicing social distancing measures and/or self-quarantining was not included, meaning the vast majority of voters would have been forced to vote in person—or avoid voting at all for fear of becoming ill, disenfranchising thousands.

The court’s decision removes this barrier through the entire 2020 election calendar.

“This is a major victory for voting rights. This ruling eliminates the excuse requirement for the 2020 elections, meaning Tennesseans will not have to risk their health in order to vote,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

The court also ordered the state to provide guidance instructing local election officials to issue absentee ballots to all eligible voters for the primary, and conduct a public information campaign informing voters about the elimination of the excuse requirement at this time.

“During this health crisis, the ability to have a say in our government is more critical than ever,” said Thomas H. Castelli, ACLU of Tennessee legal director. “This ruling makes it possible for voters to choose how to safely vote.”

“I am very grateful that I will now be able to vote safely,” said plaintiff Ben Lay. “Though I am disabled and my wife and I both have health conditions that compromise our immune systems, we were barred from voting by mail before. Thanks to the court, I can now exercise my right to vote without putting my health or the health of my wife at risk.”

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