Tennessee Election Official Says Fear of Covid-19 Not a Reason for Absentee Ballot

Some Tennessee voters would prefer to vote by absentee ballot during the Covid-19 pandemic. (Courthouse News photo/Amanda Pampuro)

(CN) — Tennessee law as currently interpreted is making Sekou Franklin face a choice between protecting the health of his father or exercising his right to vote.

When the Covid-19 pandemic spread to Tennessee on March 5, Franklin, an associate professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University, moved to teaching his classes online. Every afternoon, the professor visits his 74-year-old father to care for him because he has diabetes and a neurological disease. 

In a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s absentee voting law filed May 1, Franklin says he worries that if his father contracted Covid-19, it could kill him.

Tennessee voters need a reason to cast an absentee ballot — it’s one of seven states in the nation with such a requirement, according to the suit. Reasons covered by the state’s law include if the voter is over 60, is a poll worker, a trucker on the road or is ill. But Franklin is unable to get an absentee ballot.

“Mr. Franklin does not want to expose his father to COVID-19 by voting in person in the upcoming elections. Mr. Franklin will be disenfranchised if the State does not provide him the option to vote by mail,” the lawsuit states. 

Reached by phone, Franklin declined to comment on his suit.

Already, election officials in Davidson County — the county in which Franklin resides — have been preparing for elections changed by the pandemic, according to the complaint. It is collecting personal protective equipment for poll workers and expects 120,000 voters will cast absentee ballots in November. Four years ago, 6,000 absentee ballots were cast in the presidential election in the county. 

But on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported Tennessee’s coordinator of elections said voters worrying about getting the coronavirus while standing in line and using voting machines in the upcoming elections cannot use illness as a reason to obtain an absentee ballot.

“In consultation with the Attorney General’s office the fear of getting ill does not fall under the definition of ill,” Mark Goins said in a statement.

The comment comes as the news agency reported election officials in the state expect a surge of voters casting their ballots by absentee, reportedly preparing for every voter 60 or above — 1.4 million people – to cast ballots by mail. The state expects the results of its Aug. 6 primary may be delayed because of the number of votes cast by mail, according to the Associated Press’ reporting on the state’s Covid-19 election contingency plan.

“Tennessee election officials have designed election preparation around the habits of the 97.5% of Tennessee voters who vote in-person,” the state’s plan said. “Preparing for the increased absentee mail-in ballots will be an extreme challenge.”

As of Tuesday, 16,110 confirmed cases of Covid-19 have been found in Tennessee and 264 residents have died. According to the Tennessee Department of Health, the average age of a Tennessean with Covid-19 is 43.

Danielle Lang, co-director of voting rights and redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center, said the Associated Press’ reporting confirms allegations made in Franklin’s complaint. The state’s Covid-19 election contingency plan could help the federal court understand the realities on the ground, she added.

The report and Goins’ comments “makes clear that they understand how scared Americans are and how unsafe they feel going to the polls,” Land said.

“And yet they’re not doing anything for voters that don’t meet these strict requirements that were written in a day and age that has nothing to do with the voting we’re facing in these unprecedented times,” she added. 

The state’s laws are insufficient to handle a pandemic election, the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of  Tennessee states, because voters cannot cite the outbreak as a reason to stay home and cast a ballot by mail and organizations are criminally prohibited from assisting voters in getting absentee ballots.

“Simply put, the Constitution does not permit the State to require voters to jeopardize their health and safety, and the health and safety of their loved ones, in order to exercise their fundamental right to vote. Tennessee voters must be permitted to cast their ballots without subjecting themselves to unnecessary exposure to a pandemic disease,” the 33-page complaint states.

The lawsuit, filed by attorneys with the Campaign Legal Center and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, seeks a declaration by a judge that Tennessee’s absentee voting laws violate the right to vote. The lawsuit also asks the federal government to prevent the state from enforcing the criminal provisions of the laws.

Civil rights groups such as the Memphis A. Philip Randolph Institute, The Equity Alliance and the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP — also plaintiffs in the suit — said they want to encourage people to vote via absentee ballot. But they face possible criminal prosecution for doing so, the complaint said.

The plaintiffs also say election officials can reject absentee ballots if they believe a signature on a ballot does not match a signature on, say, their absentee ballot application.

“There are no uniform standards on which election officials in Tennessee’s 95 counties must rely to conduct their assessment, and if the voter’s ballot is rejected, the voter has no statutory right to cure the perceived deficiency by, for example, verifying their identity using a secondary method,” the lawsuit states.

A spokesperson for the Tennessee Secretary of State’s Office did not immediately return a request for comment, nor did Goins.

On May 5, Chief U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw Jr., a Barack Obama appointee, recused himself from the case.

The events in Tennessee come as the Brennan Center for Justice said deadlines are looming for states to secure purchases that would secure election infrastructure to deal with Covid-19-related challenges.

Tennessee voters have until July 30 to request an absentee ballot in time for the Aug. 6 primary.

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