Tennessee Supreme Court Allows Mail-In Ballots—But Only for Vulnerable Voters

Tennessee's Supreme Court has ruled that the state must allow voters with pre-existing medical conditions and their caretakers to vote by mail in the November general election.

The decision on Wednesday was hailed as a bittersweet victory by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has been fighting for voters across the country to be able to vote by mail in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

At first a Chancery Court decision had found that all voters in the state should be able to vote by mail in upcoming election.

The Supreme Court reversed that decision, ruling that only those who are considered vulnerable to suffering serious health impacts if they contract coronavirus and their caretakers should be allowed to vote from home.

"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," Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, said in a statement published online.

"The court should have gone further, however," he said, "and ruled that all eligible voters have a right to vote safely by mail."

Still, Ho said, "this ruling remains an important victory for many Tennessee voters."

Among the voters who will benefit is plaintiff Ben Lay, who had been concerned about the potential health consequences of voting for both himself and for his wife, with both partners suffering from underlying conditions.

"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," he said in a statement provided by the ACLU.

"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?" he said.

"COVID-19 has shone a bright light on the cracks in our institutional systems, including access to the ballot box," he said, adding: "Tennessee can and must do better in the future."

Before the Supreme Court decision, Tennessee had refused to let anyone physically capable of traveling to the polls cast their ballots by mail.

The court challenge to that rule had been brought by the ACLU, the ACLU of Tennessee, and Dechert LLP "so Tennesseans could protect their health and participate in their democracy during the pandemic," the ACLU said in a press release.

The ruling will not affect voters who requested and voted via absentee ballot for the primary elections on August 6, the ACLU sought to make clear.

They will "still have that ballot counted, regardless of whether they have an underlying condition," the organization said.

Mail ballots
An election workers sorts vote-by-mail ballots for the presidential primary at King County Elections in Renton, Washington on March 10, 2020. Tennessee voters with underlying health conditions and their caretakers will be allowed to vote by mail in the November election. JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty