absentee ballots

Hargett says it will be ‘surprise’ if full results available by end of Election Day

Secretary of State Tre Hargett speaks with Rep. Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville) before Gov. Bill Haslam’s final State of the State address on Jan. 29, 2018 in Nashville. (Photo credit: Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Secretary of State Tre Hargett says it will be a surprise if full results are available by the end of Election Day, according to reporter Hank Hayes of the Kingsport Times-News.

“We’re going to see a spike in absentee ballots. I don’t know how heavy that will be,” Hargett said. “I hope I’m pleasantly surprised like I was in August, when 95 counties had their election results done by midnight.”

The Secretary of State’s office has taken to the courts to try to fend off efforts to expand access to absentee voting during the pandemic.

Early voting starts on Oct. 14 and runs through Oct. 29. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 27. Mail-in ballots must be received via the Postal Service by Election Day in order to be counted.

Hayes pressed Hargett on his plans after the election.

“We’re trying to run an election 50 days from now,” Hargett said. “I am going to ask the legislature to re-elect me for another four-year term in January. I’ve got a lot of work to do. We still see a lot of areas where we think we can do better in. That’s what I’m focused on.”

A joint convention of the General Assembly will vote on the next four-year term for the Secretary of State in January. Hargett, a former state lawmaker, was first elected to the job in 2009. He got into some hot water in 2014 after a staffer reserved a website for a potential gubernatorial bid.

Hargett acknowledged to WTVF-TV at the time it might not have looked good, but said the site had been reserved to protect him from someone else grabbing it. He later announced he wouldn’t run for governor.

Absentee voting: CDC’s high-risk conditions for COVID-19 include obesity, smoking, blood pressure

As part of the state’s concessions on absentee balloting to get the Tennessee Supreme Court to throw out an court order allowing anyone fearful of contracting COVID-19 to vote by mail, officials agreed that anyone with a “special vulnerability” to the virus would be allowed to cast an absentee ballot.

Secretary of State Tre Hargett speaks with Rep. Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville) before Gov. Bill Haslam’s final State of the State address on Jan. 29, 2018 in Nashville. (Photo credit: Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

According to guidance released by Secretary of State Tre Hargett on Wednesday, people with an “underlying illness, physical disability, or other health condition and who cannot appear at the polling place on Election Day” can obtain an absentee ballot. That also goes for people who care for someone who does.

The press release urges voters to “consult trusted guidance from medical experts and use common sense in determining whether they have a special vulnerability.” It goes on to suggest looking up the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for more information.

According to the CDC website linked by Hargett’s office, the list of people with increase risk of severe illness from COVID-19 includes:

  • Cancer
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Immunocompromised state (weakened immune system) from solid organ transplant
  • Obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 30 or higher)
  • Serious heart conditions, such as heart failure, coronary artery disease, or cardiomyopathies
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Type 2 diabetes mellitus

The CDC says other conditions that might leave people at an increased risk are:

  • Asthma (moderate-to-severe)
  • Cerebrovascular disease (affects blood vessels and blood supply to the brain)
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Hypertension or high blood pressure
  • Immunocompromised state (weakened immune system) from blood or bone marrow transplant, immune deficiencies, HIV, use of corticosteroids, or use of other immune weakening medicines
  • Neurologic conditions, such as dementia
  • Liver disease
  • Pregnancy
  • Pulmonary fibrosis (having damaged or scarred lung tissues)
  • Smoking
  • Thalassemia (a type of blood disorder)
  • Type 1 diabetes mellitus

The release from the Secretary of State’s office follows.

Continue reading

Absentee voting well ahead of 2016 primary, nearing level of last presidential election

Secretary of State Tre Hargett speaks with Rep. Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville) before Gov. Bill Haslam’s final State of the State address on Jan. 29, 2018 in Nashville. (Photo credit: Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Requests for absentee ballots are well ahead of the number cast in the August 2016 primary and are already coming close to matching the levels of that year’s November presidential election, according to data gathered by The Tennessean‘s Joel Ebert and Carmel Kookogey.

The Secretary of State’s office said it doesn’t keep track of absentee ballot requests, referring the newspaper to local election commissions. The newspaper contacted officials in all 95 counties. Eighty provided information on how many mail-in ballots had been requested as of last week, nine refused to release data, and six did not respond.

A judge last month ordered the state to allow anyone who fears infection by the coronavirus to cast absentee ballots. The state is appealing that ruling, but it’s unlikely the Supreme Court will decide the issue before the Aug. 6 primary.

About 57,000 absentee ballots had been requested as of last week. That compares with about about 12,000 for the August 2016 primary and 64,000 for that year’s general election.

A look at the percentage difference between absentee ballot requests this year and the number cast in August and November 2016 follows after the jump.

Continue reading

[TRANSCRIPT] Judge says ‘shame on’ state for not following absentee ballot order

Secretary of State Tre Hargett speaks with Rep. Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville) on Jan. 29, 2018 in Nashville. (Photo credit: Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle on Thursday found the state had failed to follow her order to make absentee ballots to anyone concerned about the coronavirus. But the judge stopped short of finding the state in contempt of the court.

“Shame on you for not following that procedure and just taking matters into your own hands,” Lyle said. “So, I’m calling the state out on that, for not adhering to the standards of a legal process, and not adhering to the order.”

Read the judge’s whole ruling from the bench here:

Before the court is the motion of the plaintiff under Tennessee Civil Procedure Rule 65 for me to enforce, compel, require the state to comply and adhere to the injunction order that was entered by the court of June 4, 2020. And in addition, the plaintiffs have asked the court to order sanctions asserting that the state has acted willfully in not complying with the court’s order.

The court’s ruling is that it grants the part of the motion concerning enforcement. The court denies the motion for sanctions. And the court’s reasoning is as follows: With respect to enforcement of the temporary injunction, the court finds the state did violate the court’s order, and did not adhere to the order, and did take steps which  were in direct contradiction of the court’s order.

No private litigant or business would take a court’s order where they had been told to do something and say, well, I think I’ve got a better idea about how this should be done and just do it their way in derogation of what the court has said. And that’s what the state did in this case. They took my order — I did not segregate COVID voters from other voters who had that excuse No. 3, and they changed and modified my order and added a step and a nuance and maybe even a chilling effect, it’s not clear, that the court had contemplated and determined was not correct.

I just have to say that it’s a matter of standards of legal process that the way that’s done and has always been done, is that  you file a motion to modify, you file a motion to alter or amend, you ask for a conference to discuss the remedy. And that’s done every day in this court. And if you think you know a better way to do something, then you come in with a motion and you the court and give the other side an opportunity to have input. And that’s not just the practice, that’s the rule. And it’s followed daily by all attorneys and parties and litigants in this court.

I just really have to say to that point, you know, shame on you for not following that procedure and just taking matters into your own hands. So, I’m calling the state out on that, for not adhering to the standards of a legal process, and not adhering to the order.

What I’m now going to have to do to straighten it out I’m going to have to take down that form they’ve put together and issue a new form along the lines we discussed today, to change Boxes 3 and 4. I’ll get that order out this afternoon and the state will be ordered to change the forms and post them and require election officials to post these new forms by noon tomorrow, and then to change their instructions to comply with this new form, and that will be done by 5 o’clock tomorrow.

In light of the declarations that had been filed with the court about comments and instructions that are being made to voters about voting absentee, the court will look at the compliance order for these state officials to give direction or instructions to the county officials so they will know what to do and what to say. That order will take me longer. And I hope to have that out tomorrow.

Finally, with respect to the awarding of attorneys’ fees or coming up with some dollar amount by the state, we’re in a time of some budget issues and a time of a pandemic when people have got  a lot of concerns. So the court is not going to issue the sanctions. However, there always is the specter of criminal contempt if after today’s orders. If there’s still noncompliance and there’s disobedience, then that’s a route that the court can go.

Election officials instructed not to immediately comply with judge’s order on absentee ballots

A Nashville judge has ordered the state to start issuing absentee ballots to any registered voter who requests one, but State Election Coordinator Mark Goins is telling local officials not to immediately comply.

According to Goins:

Regarding the court’s decision, until we provide further instructions, do not send out any absentee applications. We may be sending a revised form. Do not update your own forms or language on your website yet. It is very important that we have uniform language. We are working on language for our website.  In the meantime, we expect a request for stay to put the ruling on hold as soon as possible […]

If a voter calls and asks for an application because of COVID-19, go ahead and take their information so you can send them a form later with the revised language if we update the form or a stay is not granted.

That appears to conflict with Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle’s order, which enjoined election officials from enforcing previous rules and mandated that they “prominently post on their websites and disseminate to County Election Officials that voters who do not wish to vote in-person due to the COVID-19 virus situation are eligible to request an absentee ballot by mail or that such voters still have the option to vote in-person during Early voting or on Election Day.”

The decision to hold off on putting the order into effect is reminiscent of Gov. Bill Lee’s announcement that he would continue to urge parents to apply for school voucher while the state appealed a ruling that found the law unconstitutional. The judge later denied a motion to lift her stay and berated the Education Department for failing to inform potential applicants about the legal challenge on its website.

Continue reading

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.