Federal Judge Blocks Tennessee Restrictions on First-Time Voters

(Jon Austria/The Daily Times via AP, File)

(CN) — First-time voter Corey Sweet, a 20-year-old college student from Memphis, was confused about how he could vote during a pandemic.

His account was a key factor that led a federal judge in Tennessee to issue a preliminary injunction Wednesday evening preventing the state from requiring first-time voters to appear in person to cast their first ballot.

U.S. District Judge Eli Richardson, an appointee of President Donald Trump, said the state did not argue the requirement prevented voter fraud and did not offer evidence that Congress wanted the states to pass first-time voter restrictions. Furthermore, he said the voting rights advocates would likely succeed in challenging the requirement.

“The state’s legitimate interest in making voters show identification naturally makes it necessary for the state to impose burdens associated with voters providing identification to election officials,” Richardson wrote in his 58-page opinion. “But that interest, at least as far as the current record shows, does not make it necessary or even helpful to impose the burden associated with forcing voters to show up in person to vote (and provide the identification required to vote).” (Parentheses in original.)

But to arrive at that decision, Richardson had to determine whether the groups and individuals challenging the requirement, including the Equity Alliance and the Memphis A. Phillip Randolph Institute, had standing.

It was close.

“Plaintiffs have shown that the NAACP has associational standing by virtue of the standing of its member, Mr. Sweet. To be clear, plaintiffs have made the bare minimum showing of standing. But they have made that,” Richardson wrote.

The voting rights advocates had filed the lawsuit in Nashville federal court against the state’s election officials challenging several of the state’s election rules on May 1. Sweet, who occasionally attended meetings of the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP, did not register to vote until the end of May or the beginning of June, according to his three-page declaration.

Attorneys representing the groups – such as those from the Campaign Legal Center and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law – had included Sweet’s declaration while arguing for the preliminary injunction at the beginning of July, ahead of the state’s August primaries.

“I would prefer to vote by mail in the upcoming August election,” Sweet said. “I do not want to risk exposure to Covid-19 by going to the polls. I do not want to risk infecting anyone in my family including those who are older than sixty years like my grandmother.”

Sweet, who attended college in Louisiana, did not have the money to fly back home and was worried about the exposure to the novel coronavirus that travel could bring, he said.

But when he looked at the website of the Shelby County Election Commission to determine how he should vote, he found the instructions confusing.

“Given the conflicting information, I do not know whether I should request my absentee ballot,” Sweet said.

In a footnote in his decision, Richardson said the evidence that Sweet is a member of the NAACP is “far from strong,” although he relied on the plaintiffs’ representations that he is.

Ending his opinion, the judge said he considered the case not a political matter, but a legal one.

“The questions he decides are decided based on the facts as he sees them and the law as he construes it. He is not concerned about how his decisions could aid one side or the other on the political front,” Richardson wrote, referring to himself.

Spokespersons for the offices of the Tennessee secretary of state and attorney general declined to comment, even to a question about whether the state plans to appeal the decision.

In a statement, Ezra Rosenberg co-director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s voting rights project, said, “This decision means that first-time voters in Tennessee who registered by mail or online – and there are tens of thousands of them, many of whom are young – can vote in November by mail, without risking their health.”

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