ellen hobbs lyle

Supreme Court turns down state’s effort to halt expanded absentee voting amid pandemic

The Tennessee Supreme Court has declined to immediately halt a judge’s order that the state must allow any voters concerned about being infected by COVID-19 to cast their ballots by mail. But the state’s highest court did agree to directly take up the full legal challenge of the ruling, bypassing the intermediate Court of Appeals.

Nashville Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle earlier this month found the state’s position that fear of coronavirus infection was not a sufficient reason to request an absentee ballot presented an “unreasonable burden on the fundamental right to vote guaranteed by the Tennessee Constitution.”

When state election officials responded by creating a new category on the application form for those worried about COVID-19 rather than have it covered by the existing medical exception, Lyle called out the state for failing to adhere to her original order.

“Shame on you for not following that procedure and just taking matters into your own hands,” Lyle said in a recent hearing.

While the expedited appeal will speed up the state’s legal challenge, it appears unlikely the high court will decide the case before the Aug. 6 primary. Absentee ballots are already being sent out, and in-person early voting begins on July 17.

Slatery blasts judge for ruling allowing any voter to cast absentee ballot

State Attorney General Herbert Slatery, right, speaks with Rep. Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station) on the House floor in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State Attorney General Herbert Slatery issued an unusual statement criticizing a sitting judge for ruling against the state in a lawsuit over access to absentee ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle on Thursday evening rejected what she called the the state’s “oddly skewed” calculations about what it would take to drop restrictions on who can vote by mail. Election officials had estimated that under the change, 100% of registered voters could cast absentee ballots and overwhelm the system. Tennessee has never had a turnout anywhere near so high, Lyle said in the ruling.

“It is yet another court decision replacing legislation passed by the people’s elected officials with its own judgment,” Slatery said in a statement, which didn’t indicate whether he might seek an appeal.

Here’s the full statement:

Nashville- This evening Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ordered state government to abandon long standing requirements for in person voting.

Tennessee, like all states, must engage in a delicate balancing act: it must safeguard voters from COVID-19 exposure while ensuring that voters are not disenfranchised.   

Tennessee’s election officials consulted with experts from the Tennessee Department of Health and county health departments to create a comprehensive COVID-19 election plan that conforms to the CDC’s guidance and makes Tennessee’s polling places safer than the general community.

The Court’s ruling, while rightly taking into account the safety of Tennessee’s voters and poll workers, failed to appropriately consider the extensive safety measures of the COVID-19 election plan, and, more importantly, gave little weight to the unanimous expertise of state and county election officials that hastily expanding absentee voting is impracticable and risks disenfranchising Tennessee voters. 

The Court’s order has taken this important decision away from Tennessee’s state and county election experts and 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,” said Herbert H. Slatery III.