With the 2020 elections taking place amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, it was crucial to make sure that people could exercise their right to vote while also safeguarding their health. The CDC recommended mail-in voting as a way to inhibit the spread of the virus. While many states — including Alabama, South Carolina and Kentucky — began to utilize mail-in voting, Tennessee restricted this safe practice with limited exceptions.
The state asserted that under Tennessee law, individuals can only vote by mail if they meet certain pre-determined excuse requirements, and that discomfort with the dangers inherent to in-person voting during a pandemic was not sufficient justification to vote by mail. The state’s position forced Tennesseans to either risk their health or to not vote at all.
In May 2020, ACLU-TN, the ACLU and Dechert LLP filed a lawsuit asking the courts to declare the state’s construction and enforcement of the excuse requirement unconstitutional. We also asked the court to permit mail-in voting for the duration of the election year, or as long as the CDC recommends.
In June 2020, the Davidson County Chancery Court granted the plaintiffs’ request that all voters in Tennessee who wished to vote by mail because of the pandemic be allowed to do so. The state appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court.
The Tennessee Supreme Court refused to block the ruling, ordering the state to comply with the June 4 order that required it to make absentee voting available to every eligible voter for all elections in 2020 due to COVID-19. This allowed for the earlier decision to remain intact as the challenge awaited review by the state Supreme Court.
On August 5, 2020, the Tennessee Supreme Court partially agreed with the arguments we brought forward, ruling that the statute allows voters with underlying conditions and their caretakers to vote by mail. However, the court declined to go so far as to rule that the Tennessee Constitution required that mail-in voting be extended to all eligible voters during the pandemic.
Benjamin William Lay, Carole Joy Greenawalt and Sophia Luangrath
Mark Goins -- Coordinator of Elections for the State of Tennessee, Tre Hargett -- Secretary of State for the State of Tennessee, William Lee -- Governor of the State of Tennessee
ACLU-TN: Thomas H. Castelli
ACLU: Dale E. Ho, Sophia Lin Lakin
Dechert LLP: Tharuni A. Jayaraman, Neil A. Steiner, Angela M. Liu