Under a Tennessee Supreme Court decision issued today, the state must permit every eligible voter with an underlying health condition that makes them especially vulnerable to COVID-19 — and any voter who is a caretaker of such individuals — to vote by mail in all elections in 2020 due to COVID-19. Prior to this case, the state had refused to let anyone physically capable of traveling to the polls to vote by mail.
The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Tennessee, and Dechert LLP brought the challenge so Tennesseans could protect their health and participate in their democracy during the pandemic.
Any eligible voter who requested and voted via absentee ballot for the primary elections on August 6 will still have that ballot counted, regardless of whether they have an underlying condition. Today’s ruling, however, reverses a Chancery Court decision that found all voters can vote by mail, and it narrows the category of voters who can vote by mail in the general election to those with underlying medical conditions and caretakers of such individuals.
“The Tennessee Supreme Court recognized that the state must not force medically vulnerable Tennesseans to vote in person during the highly contagious and deadly COVID-19 pandemic. This ruling means they can safely cast their ballots by mail. The court should have gone further, however, and ruled that all eligible voters have a right to vote safely by mail. But this ruling remains an important victory for many Tennessee voters,” said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
“Today’s decision ensures that Tennessee voters with underlying health conditions and their caretakers can access the ballot box safely. However, we are troubled that the court did not expand the use of mail-in ballots so that all Tennessee voters could decide how to best cast their ballot to protect their health and safety,” said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU of Tennessee executive director. “The COVID-19 pandemic is hitting Black communities and urban areas the hardest. Failing to expand mail-in voting in the midst of the pandemic is nothing short of voter suppression. We will be working hard to educate qualified voters about their right to vote by mail, and we will keep fighting at the legislature and in communities statewide to expand access to the ballot box in Tennessee.”
The case was brought on behalf of several Tennesseans whose health would be at risk if forced to vote in person while COVID-19 is spreading.
“My wife and I are pleased that the court affirmed that we and others with underlying health conditions and those that care for them can vote by mail during this once-in-a-century pandemic. However, we believe that no American — underlying health conditions or not — should ever be faced with that most impossible choice on Election Day: Do I stay home to protect my health and the health of my loved ones, or do I risk my life to exercise my constitutional right to vote?” said plaintiff Ben Lay. “COVID-19 has shone a bright light on the cracks in our institutional systems, including access to the ballot box. Tennessee can and must do better in the future.”
The lawsuit, Lay v. Goins, was filed in Chancery Court/Davidson County in Nashville, Tennessee.