The State of Tennessee remains on a losing streak in its appeal of a three-week-old ruling by a Nashville Chancellor granting the right to a mail-in absentee ballot to any eligible Tennessee voter who for any reason is wary of on-site voting this year because of the ongoing COVID-19 virus.
The Tennessee Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to hear the case on appeal but has denied the state’s request for a stay of Chancery Court Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle’s June 5th order, a request filed by Secretary of State Tre Hargett and state Election Coordinator Mark Goins.
The state Supreme Court granted a request by the defendants by bypass an intermediate appeals court in order to expedite a decision on the Lyle ruling, which directs the defendants to expand eligibility for mail-in voting, to send such mail-in ballots to voters requesting them, and to ensure that all election officials throughout the state also comply with such requests.
In her ruling, Chancellor Lyle had discounted the state’s objections — ranging from concerns about costs to concerns about fraud and excessive demands upon the state’s capability. She noted that the Tennessee constitution is “more explicit than the federal Constitution” in guaranteeing the right to vote and that the state’s “restrictive interpretation and application of Tennessee’s voting by mail law” constituted “an unreasonable burden on the fundamental right to vote.”
Lyle did not require the state to automatically provide the state’s entire voting population with mail-in ballots, merely those voters who might apply for them. Voters could still choose to vote in person if they wanted.
Subsequent to her original ruling, she pronounced as invalid and confusing the state’s rewording of the official voter application forms for mail-in ballots and insisted on language that was clear and unambiguous in its listing of concerns about COVID-19 as an acceptable condition for requesting an absentee ballot.
In another follow-up ruling issued on Thursday, Judge Lyle admonished the state to ensure that all county election commission websites or other county posts included clear advisories of the COVID-19 reason, requiring Goins to provide proposed language for the court to order by 3:30 p.m. Thursday. This was in response to reports that dozens of counties across the state had failed to fully comply with the court’s order. Lyle said “an omission of COVID-19 in such Posted Information where the other reasons and excuses are addressed does not conform to the Absentee Ballot Application, and is inaccurate, incomplete and potentially misleading.”
Meanwhile, the state Supreme Court has asked for a brief in the case from the state by July 2nd. from the plaintiffs by July 9th, and any response to that from the State by July 13th. Oral argument via Zoom will be scheduled for some time thereafter.