ellen hobbs lyle

Judge orders state to include specific guidance on absentee ballot eligibility due to COVID-19

A judge has ordered Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office to include wording in absentee ballot application forms to make clear that people at greater risk from contracting COVID-19 are eligible to vote by mail.

Nashville Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle’s ruling Tuesday came after the state Supreme Court agreed to vacate the injunction she had imposed earlier when the state took what the chancellor called the “extraordinary step of a last-minute concession during oral arguments” that people with a special vulnerability to COVID-19 (or those who care for people who do) had a valid reason to cast absentee ballots. Had the state taken this position earlier, Lyle said, the case would have been settled long before it reached the Supreme Court.

The high court’s ruling had instructed Hargett’s office to “ensure that appropriate guidance is provided to Tennessee registered voters” about the state’s new stance. While Hargett issued a press release that included reference to people with a special vulnerability to COVID-19 being able to vote by mail, the new application form included no such information.

As such, Lyle ruled the application forms should now include the following excuses for people seeking to vote by mail:

I am hospitalized, ill or physically disabled and unable to appear at my polling place to vote (this includes persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which in their determination render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it).

I am a caretaker of a hospitalized, ill or physically disabled person (this includes caretakers for persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which in their determination render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it).

Lyle also deemed that other materials issued by the state on the subject of absentee balloting — such as language highlighted at the bottom of the form offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to a conviction for voter — to be “confusing and misleading.” But the chancellor said those details fell outside of her purview.

Hargett’s office was critical of the decision.

“It is ironic to us that the same Chancellor who chastised us for changing the form is now upset because we did not change the form,” Hargett spokeswoman Julia Bruck said in an emailed statement. “The Chancellor is legislating from the bench.”

Hedy Weinberg, the exeutive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, lauded the decision:

The court’s ruling today will ensure that people with special vulnerability to COVID-19 and their caretakers know exactly how to request mail-in ballots. The state’s delay in making this information clear is yet another example of voter suppression in Tennessee. Our state should be working to make it as easy as possible for people to vote, not creating obstacles at every turn and requiring a court order to fix them. We applaud the court for compelling the state to make Tennesseans’ voting rights clear and to do so quickly.

Read the ruling here.

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.