KEY POINTS

  • The Tennessee Attorney General's Office said it would still enforce the state's in-person voting requirement for first-time voters ahead of Tennessee's August primary
  • The statement was in response to a June ruling by a state judge ordering "all eligible voters" be allowed to apply for absentee ballots, but was criticized for the broad language used and failure to directly address the first-time voter requirement
  • A subsequent federal lawsuit argued the first-time voter requirement would "unconstitutionally" force voters to choose between their health and voting rights amid the coronavirus pandemic

The Tennessee attorney general’s office said they would enforce a state requirement for first-time voters to cast ballots in person instead of casting absentee ballots. This is in response to a federal lawsuit trying to block the in-person requirement ahead of the Aug. 6 primary, along with two of the state’s absentee voting laws.

The lawsuit came about after a state judge’s ruling in June allowed “all eligible voters” to cast absentee ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic. However, the judge’s ruling faced some criticism for the broad language used and not addressing the in-person requirement for first-time voters.

In response, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law to file a federal lawsuit shortly after the judge’s ruling to directly block the first-time voting requirement.

The suit argued the judge’s ruling wasn’t clear on if first-time voters could cast absentee ballots rather than vote in person. It also says the requirement will “unconstitutionally” force many first-time voters to choose between their health or voting, despite being eligible for absentee voting.

State officials have pushed back on the lawsuit, saying the in-person requirement amounts to nothing more than an “inconvenience” and doesn’t deny anyone access to voting. Officials said expanding absentee voting for the 2020 elections are not feasible due to “administrative and financial burdens” on the state, as well.

They also criticized the timing of the lawsuit as voters have been able to request absentee ballot applications since May 8.

“County Election Commissions would be required to canvass their absentee ballot applications to identify any applications that were rejected because they were first-time voters who had registered to vote by mail and then contact those voters so that they could re-submit their applications for an absentee ballot—with a looming deadline of July 30 as the last day to request an absentee ballot,” Tennessee election officials said.

The state’s efforts to halt expanding absentee voting amid the coronavirus have been met with sharp criticism by some local officials. Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle told officials “shame on you” on June 15 for seemingly rewording the absentee voting application on their own and for failing to send out absentee applications for several hours after the state judge’s June ruling.

A voter wearing a glove holds an 'I Voted!' sticker after casting her ballot in the Florida primary A voter wearing a glove holds an 'I Voted!' sticker after casting her ballot in the Florida primary Photo: GETTY IMAGES / JOE RAEDLE