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Tennessee's Strict Absentee Ballot Rules Put Voters at Risk

More Americans are expected to vote by mail in the 2020 election year as the coronavirus pandemic continues. (Adobe Stock)
More Americans are expected to vote by mail in the 2020 election year as the coronavirus pandemic continues. (Adobe Stock)
May 21, 2020

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee is bracing for multiple elections this year, including a major statewide election on Aug. 6 and the general election on Nov. 3.

Yet without a vaccine for the coronavirus, many voters are worried about the health risks involved in showing up at the polls.

In many states, voting by mail is relatively easy, but Tennessee is one of 16 states that requires eligible voters to submit specific reasons for why they need to request absentee ballot.

So far, Gov. Bill Lee has refused to use his executive power to expand vote by mail during the pandemic.

Davidson County resident Ben Lay is a two-time cancer survivor, and his wife lives with an auto-immune disease. He says he's being forced to make an unreasonable choice.

"We represent thousands, or tens of thousands, of other Tennesseans who are going to be faced with that choice come this August and November," Lay states. "Do I risk my life to get out and exercise my right to vote. Or do I forfeit having my voice heard so that I can stay safe?"

Lay is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in a Nashville court by civil rights groups seeking to make absentee voting available to all eligible voters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, says her organization is asking the court to block the state from enforcing the excuse requirement for the 2020 election year, and to instruct local election officials to issue absentee ballots to all eligible voters.

"It's disappointing to us right now that the governor has not chosen to use his executive power to expand use of the absentee ballot," she states. "Without expanded use, we will be disenfranchising tens of thousands of eligible Tennessee voters."

Weinberg emphasizes that polling places should remain open for those who do want to vote in person.

Research has shown that African-Americans are far less likely to vote by mail than other groups. In the 2018 mid-term elections, around 11% of black voters nationwide voted by mail, compared with more than 23% of white voters.

Support for this reporting was provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - TN