Filed Date: May 14, 2020
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COVID-19 summary: This lawsuit was filed by Tennessee voters to ease the application of Tennessee’s voting by mail law during the COVID-19 pandemic. The plaintiffs sought declaratory relief, as well as a preliminary and permanent injunction and a temporary restraining order enjoining the excuse requirement for the August 6 primary and November 3 general elections, and to expand access to voting by mail for the plaintiffs. On June 4, the court granted the temporary injunction in favor of the plaintiffs.
On May 15, 2020, Tennessee voters filed a complaint against the State of Tennessee to temporarily ease its application of the voting by mail law during the COVID-19 pandemic. All plaintiffs did not qualify to vote by mail under Tennessee voting law despite facing heightened susceptibility of COVID-19 or living with persons facing heightened vulnerability. The plaintiffs alleged that the requirement to vote in-person exposed voters to health risks, as the polling station could not deny entry to those who chose not to wear masks. The plaintiffs alleged that the enforcement of the in-person requirement constituted an unreasonable burden on the fundamental right to vote under the Tennessee Constitution.
Filed in the Chancery Court for the state of Tennessee, the plaintiffs sought declaratory relief, as well as a preliminary and permanent injunction enjoining the excuse requirement for the August 6 primary and November 3 general elections, and to expand access to voting by mail for the plaintiffs. Further, the plaintiffs requested an order requiring the defendants to modify the election material to reflect the elimination and/or modification of the Excuse Requirement and to conduct a public information campaign accordingly. The plaintiffs also sought attorney fees. The plaintiffs were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, ACLU of Tennessee, and private counsel. The case was assigned to Davidson County Chancellor Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle.
The defendant responded that increasing voting by mail introduced voter fraud risk and that the state lacked fiscal and logistical resources.
On June 3, a hearing was held on the impact of expanded absentee voting. The following day, the court granted the temporary injunction in favor of the plaintiffs. The court concluded that the state’s restrictive application of the voting by mail law during the pandemic posed an unreasonable burden on the right to vote. The defendants were mandated to waive the “excuse requirement” for absentee voters, to mail an absentee ballot for any Tennessee voter who applies to vote by mail and to disseminate the relevant information. However, the court held that Tennessee voters must apply for an absentee ballot to obtain one, unlike other states which require the state to automatically distribute absentee ballots to all registered voters.
On June 8, the plaintiffs submitted a notice of motion to enforce the court’s order on June 4, after the defendants instructed local election officials to refrain from sending absentee ballots due to COVID-19 concerns. The defendants submitted a motion for interlocutory appeal to temporarily stay the June 4 order.
On June 10, the court denied the defendants’ motion to stay and ordered the defendant to comply with the absentee voting request by 5 pm on the following day. The court held that the June 4 order requiring the voter to take the initiative in obtaining the absentee ballot was already a narrow remedy that does not add a new category to the Tennessee statute.
The case is ongoing.
Averyn Lee (6/21/2020)
Brown, Jacob Webster (Tennessee)
Castelli, Thomas H. (Tennessee)
Ho, Dale E. (New York)
Jayaraman, Tharuni A (District of Columbia)
Kramer, Bruce S. (Tennessee)
Lyle, Ellen Hobbs (Tennessee)
Last updated Aug. 30, 2023, 2:44 p.m.Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.
State / Territory: Tennessee
Filing Date: May 14, 2020
Case Ongoing: Yes
Public Interest Lawyer: Yes
Filed Pro Se: No
Class Action Sought: No
Class Action Outcome: Not sought
Causes of Action:
Prevailing Party: Plaintiff
Nature of Relief:
Source of Relief:
Order Duration: 2020 - None
Content of Injunction: