A Nashville court has given Tennessee election officials until the end of business Friday to follow an order handed down a week ago related to absentee voting during the pandemic. And Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle expressed her frustration during Thursday’s hearing.
“Shame on you for not following that procedure and just taking matters into your own hands,” Lyle said.
Last week, Lyle sided with a group of voters from Shelby County that had sued the state in order to be allowed to vote by mail because of COVID-19 concerns. Each is healthy but lives with a person who could be at higher risk of complications from the coronavirus.
Tennessee is one of just a handful of states that has not already allowed universal absentee voting during the pandemic. It requires voters to give an excuse, like being too ill to vote in person, before issuing absentee ballots.
Lyle ordered the state to let anyone claim a medical necessity, determining that anyone voting in a pandemic would be at risk of getting sick. Instead, the state changed the form to request a mail-in ballot, adding a box to check for COVID-19 concerns.
Lyle suggested that language could result in future litigation and that the wording might even have a chilling effect on how many people opt for a mail-in ballot.
The state’s attorneys say election officials were trying to make the process more obvious for voters, but Lyle chastised them for not asking permission from the court first.
“No private litigant or business would take a court’s order, where they were told to do something, and say, ‘Well, I think I’ve got a better idea on how this should be done,'” she said.
Tennessee elections chief Mark Goins has to make the changes to the form by noon Friday and update the instructions for obtaining an absentee ballot by 5 p.m. If not, Lyle is threatening sanctions.
“There’s always the specter of criminal contempt,” she said. “If after today’s orders, there’s still noncompliance and disobedience, then that’s the route the court can go.”