MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Nashville judge who ordered the state to allow everyone to vote by absentee ballot issued a new order to Tennessee election officials Wednesday night.
Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle wants the Secretary of State’s office and local election commissions to make it explicitly clear to voters that people who are medically vulnerable to COVID-19, and their caretakers, are now among the Tennesseans eligible to vote by absentee mail.
In her August 25th order, Judge Lyle included the exact language to be used on absentee ballot applications.
For those who are medically eligible to vote by mail, Chancellor Lyle ordered the application to say: “I am hospitalized, ill or physically disabled and unable to appear at my polling place to vote (this includes persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which in their determination render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it.)”
And the judge says caretakers are defined as those providing care to “Persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which in their determination render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it.”
Memphis attorney Jake Brown represented the plaintiffs who sued the state of Tennessee to get all citizens the right to vote by absentee ballot. Judge Lyle issued a temporary injunction in June forcing the state to allow universal mail-in voting to happen. The Tennessee Supreme Court struck down Lyle’s order during a hearing on August 5th.
During that proceeding, says Brown, the state agreed to include the medically vulnerable and their caregivers among those eligible to absentee vote by mail.
“To the extent that those persons are now able to vote absentee,” Brown told WMC Action News 5, “when they should have been all along, we’re happy with that. It’s absolutely a victory. But my concern is the confusion the state is creating. It’s not clear to me why the state would not make it clear to voters on all of its forms without having to be ordered to do so by the court.”
WMC Action News 5 reached out to Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office for comment. His Director of Communications, Julia Bruck, said the Division of Elections updated the absentee ballot request form in early August.
See the website and absentee ballot application here.
Bruck says the Tennessee Supreme Court signed off on the state’s wording.
“The Supreme Court ruling confirmed our interpretation on August 5th,” she said. “And our form and instructions were updated by August 7th. These instructions were in agreement with our longstanding interpretation.”
The Shelby County Election Commission also updated its website earlier this month to reflect the new class of voters now included in mail-in voting because of COVID-19 concerns.
See the website and ballot application here.
But SCEC spokesperson Suzanne Thompson says the language Chancellor Lyle wants them to add to the application contains too many words and is too hard to understand.
Thompson says Shelby County election leaders plan to speak with the judge to see if a compromise can be reached. Lyle issued a September 1st deadline to notify the court of wording changes that have been made.
In the meantime, even though the high court ruled against Chancellor Lyle’s temporary injunction, attorney Brown says the absentee ballot battle is far from over.
“This is not the end of the case,” he said. “We still have a right to a full hearing on a permanent injunction, a full trial on the merits of our lawsuit, and that is not off the table yet.”
To see who the CDC considers medically vulnerable to COVID-19, click here.