Memphians challenge state for universal absentee voting

By , Daily Memphian Updated: May 12, 2020 9:38 AM CT | Published: May 11, 2020 5:16 PM CT

A group of Memphis voters and a voter advocacy organization are suing the state, seeking a court order allowing any voter worried about the COVID-19 pandemic to vote absentee.

The complaint was filed May 8 in Davidson County Chancery Court against Gov. Bill Lee, Secretary of State Tre Hargett, State Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins and Attorney General Herbert Slatery. It calls for absentee ballots for all voters, regardless of whether they have an excuse set out by state law.

<span><strong>Tre Hargett</strong></span>

Tre Hargett

The challenge claims that, as applied to the unique circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, Tennessee’s strict absentee ballot requirements violate the right to vote under Tennessee’s Constitution.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that an existing exception allowing absentee voting with a doctor’s note should be interpreted broadly to allow a doctor to certify that all voters in a county are “medically unable” to vote in person in 2020 due to pandemic-related health risks.

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State law allows absentee voting for those over 60, people who are out of town and those who are physically unable to go to polls for medical or other reasons during early voting and on Election Day.

“People shouldn’t have to choose between their health and the health of their loved ones and their fundamental right to vote,” the Rev. Earle Fisher, one of the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

“Voters should be able to choose to send their ballot by mail, or drop it off at secure, safe locations, as is done in other states,” added Fisher, pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church and founder of UpTheVote901, which advocates for voter rights and turnout in “marginalized” communities.

Joining UpTheVote901 as plaintiffs are a mix of Republican and Democrat Memphis voters, Hunter Demster, Julia Hiltonsmith, Jeff and Ginger Bullard and Allison Donald, according to attorney Jake Brown, with the Apperson Crump law firm.


<strong>Earle Fisher</strong>

Earle Fisher

None of the plaintiffs are eligible now to vote absentee ballots, though some have health problems making them vulnerable to COVID-19 or live with people who have underlying health problems, according to a release. They’re worried going to the polls could force them to come into contact with someone carrying the virus, causing them to pass it to others.

“The state should be making it as safe and convenient as possible to vote during this global pandemic health crisis,” Demster said. “This year, that means allowing mail ballots. Anything less will suppress voter turnout.”

Most states allow absentee voting without an excuse and voters can obtain a mail ballot by request or what is called pure “vote by mail,” where voters automatically receive a ballot, according to the release.


The group contends Tennessee is one of only six states still requiring people to vote in person during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ten of the 17 states where voters must have an excuse to vote absentee have suspended those rules for the remainder of the emergency, and a state court ordered Texas to suspend its absentee voter excuses, according to its release.

University of Memphis law professor Steven Mulroy is representing the plaintiffs along with Brown, Bruce Kramer and Melody Dernocoeur of the Apperson Crump law firm.

“We think it’s an important issue given the COVID crisis,” Brown said.

If the state’s situation with COVID cases is vastly improved by August and November election dates, “I don’t think anybody’s lost anything,” Brown said. But if the virus continues to spread or surges, the state needs to have widespread absentee voting in place or voter turnout could be depressed, he said.

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“This is not in any way a partisan issue. Tennesseans have an express personal right to vote, whether for Joseph Biden, Donald Trump or the Peabody ducks,” Brown said.

This lawsuit is the second filed in the span of a week challenging Tennessee’s absentee voting law.

The A. Phillip Randolph Institute of Memphis, The Equity Alliance, Free Hearts, Memphis and West Tennessee AFL-CIO, the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP, Sekou Franklin of Davidson County and Kendra Lee of Shelby County filed a complaint May 1 against Tennessee claiming the state’s absentee ballot rules don’t take into account the COVID-19 crisis and potential penalties against organizations that try to improve ballot access.

Secretary of State Hargett’s office did not respond immediately to a request for comment Monday.

Goins said previously the office is working on a plan for elections dealing with the COVID pandemic but has not provided information. He has not commented on requests by lawmakers for universal absentee ballot voting or the initial lawsuit.


Earle Fisher Tre Hargett #UPTheVote901
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter with more than 30 years of journalism experience as a writer, editor and columnist covering the state Legislature and Tennessee politics for The Daily Memphian.


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