Judge Threatens to Hold Tennessee in Contempt Over Not Allowing Coronavirus Fears as Valid Excuse for Mail-In Voting

A judge in Tennessee has admonished the state for failing to follow her order allowing mail-in voting for those concerned about in-person voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled last week that Tennessee voters could request absentee ballots due to the virus after a legal challenge was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Tennessee on the behalf of voters.

The state has one of the strictest absentee voting laws in the U.S., requiring voters to have specific, limited reasons for voting by mail. During a Thursday hearing, ACLU lawyers argued that Tennessee was violating details of Lyle's order and instructing local election officials to not send ballots to those who request them due to COVID-19.

"Shame on you for not following that procedure and just taking matters into your own hands," the judge told lawyers from the Tennessee Attorney General's office. "I'm calling the state out on that for not adhering to the standards of a legal process and not adhering to the order."

After last week's ruling, the state allowed voters to request absentee ballots due to concerns over the virus but failed to follow the judge's instruction that voters should select a reason already present on the absentee request form. Instead, the form was altered to include a new category specifically indicating that the voter is worried about COVID-19.

State attorneys insisted that that their actions were intended to make it easier for voters to request ballots, rather than allowing the requests to be segregated in order to help officials hold back the new requests. State officials have vowed to appeal Lyle's original order but say they will comply unless it is overturned.

"The State in good faith used the language from the Court's previous order to explain the availability of absentee ballots to voters concerned about COVID-19," a spokesperson for the Tennessee Attorney General's office said in a statement to Newsweek. "Today the Court disagreed with how that information was presented on the application."

"The State will again attempt to comply, this time with today's order, while immediately appealing the Court's original holding," they added.

Vote-by-mail Form
Mail-in voting has become a heated and often partisan issue in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. Darylann Elmi/Getty

The ruling requires Tennessee officials to fix the absentee ballot request forms by 5 p.m. on Friday. Lyle warned the state that "there is always the specter of criminal contempt" if they do not comply.

"The judge recognized the gravity of the state's failure to comply with the order to make absentee ballots available to all eligible voters during COVID-19," Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, said in a statement after Thursday's ruling.

"Once again, the courts have recognized that no one should be forced to choose between their health and their vote," he added.

Following the judge's ruling last week, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery III insisted that allowing voters to use mail-in ballots due to the virus "unnecessarily risks voter confusion, potential voter fraud, and election disruption."

"It is yet another court decision replacing legislation passed by the people's elected officials with its own judgment, largely ignoring the practicalities of implementing such a decision, and doing so in the midst of a pandemic and budget crisis," Slatery said in a statement.

The issue of mail-in voting has become a heated and often partisan issue in recent months. Studies have shown that historically, there is little evidence voting by mail favors either party or that it facilitates any significant voter fraud.

President Donald Trump has been particularly vocal about his opposition to mail-in voting, describing it as "corrupt," although he used the system himself in the last two elections.

"Sure, I can vote by mail," Trump told reporters during April 7 news briefing. "Because I'm allowed to."