Governor agrees with Supreme Court decision on absentee balloting

By , Daily Memphian Updated: August 06, 2020 7:05 PM CT | Published: August 06, 2020 5:16 PM CT

Gov. Bill Lee acknowledged Thursday, Aug. 6, he might have cast an absentee ballot while in college – when he attended Auburn University, not the University of Alabama – but he still thinks the state took the right step in blocking universal absentee balloting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Tennessee Supreme Court this week turned back a Davidson County chancellor’s ruling allowing all voters worried about catching COVID-19 at the polls to vote absentee, although all absentee ballots cast for Thursday’s election will count. But it allowed anyone with underlying health problems to cast absentee ballots in November after the state shifted course on the matter last week.

State Supreme Court OKs absentee August votes, but limits absentee for November

Lee pointed out Secretary of State Tre Hargett worked for months on a COVID-19 voting plan, concentrating on safety at polling places, before fighting lawsuits to allow universal absentee balloting. States nationwide embarked on aggressive absentee voting programs in light of the pandemic to enable voters to stay at home.

“We’ve seen states that have used significant absentee voting and they’ve had significant problems because of the massive increase they had in their absentee votes. So there are problems with whatever strategy you take,” the governor said during a Thursday press conference. “The Secretary of State has done a great job of planning for this.”

Lee agreed with the Supreme Court’s decision and said he believes it recognized the state’s effort to create “a safe environment” at the polls and decided against universal absentees heading into the Nov. 3 election.

The governor, who voted early last week, acknowledged lines had not been long on Election Day in Metro Nashville and Shelby County polling places but said the outcome is good nevertheless.

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In an election year without a gubernatorial race, county mayor or sheriff races and no presidential race on the primary and general election, turnout was expected to be low, he said.

Still, Hargett was expecting 600,000 to 800,000 to cast ballots Thursday after some 570,000 voted early or absentee, according to Lee.

Eligible voters who cast absentee ballots for the Thursday election will have their ballot counted regardless of whether they have an underlying health condition making them susceptible to COVID-19.

But only those who are especially vulnerable or are caretakers of those susceptible to COVID-19 will be added to the future list with more than a dozen excuses ranging from hospitalization, illness, caregiver or absence from the area.

After the court’s decision, the Tennessee Democratic Party bashed Republicans’ efforts to fight expanded absentee balloting.

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“The goal of every elected official in Tennessee should be to ensure that every citizen, regardless of party affiliation, is able to safely and securely cast their ballot and fully participate in our democracy. This is a fundamental principle and a core value we should all share,” party Chair Mary Mancini said in a statement.

The American Civil Liberties Union claimed a victory for Tennessee voters in the court’s decision but said the justices should have gone further in allowing all eligible voters to cast absentee ballots during the pandemic. The organization represented plaintiff Nashville resident Ben Lay in the case.

“My wife and I are pleased that the court affirmed that we and others with underlying conditions and those that care for them can vote by mail during this once-in-a-century pandemic,” Lay said in a statement.

“However, we believe that no American – underlying health conditions or not – should ever be faced with that most impossible choice in Election Day: Do I stay home to protect my health and the health of my loved ones, or do I risk my life to exercise my constitutional right to vote?”

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Bill Lee Ben Lay ACLU
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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