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Judge: Groups likely cited Tennessee wrong absentee law

By JONATHAN MATTISE
Associated Press
NASHVILLE (AP) — A federal judge ruled Wednesday that he won’t block Tennessee’s criminal restriction on some distribution of absentee voting-related forms for the November election, saying the groups that challenged the law were confused over which forms are which and likely cited the wrong law.
In his decision, U.S. District Judge Eli Richardson in Nashville wrote that the plaintiffs cited examples related to a law that makes it a Class E felony for everyone outside of election officials to give an application for an absentee ballot to anyone who doesn’t first ask for one.
However, the groups challenged the subsequent section of law that bars the same practice, but for a different form called a “request for application for absentee ballot,” with a different, Class A misdemeanor penalty, the judge wrote.
“Plaintiffs plainly are confused to an extent about the difference between an application and a request for an application,” Richardson wrote.
The ruling addressed only one of the three absentee voting-related restrictions that the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Campaign Legal Center challenged for the general election due to the new coronavirus pandemic.
The plaintiffs also have sought to block a law that bars first-time voters from voting absentee unless they show an ID at the local election office beforehand. The third change they are requesting would require the chance to fix signature matching issues with their ballots.
The judge has yet to rule on the motion for preliminary injunction on the other requirements. He previously declined to block all three restrictions for the August primary, saying plaintiffs requested the changes too close to the election.
The lawsuit also sought to expand absentee voting to all eligible voters during the pandemic, then that change was ordered separately in June by a state court judge and stayed in place for the Aug. 6 primary. However, the expansion was overturned last week by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
The state is already accepting absentee applications for the general election under its excuse-based system, with the addition of some COVID-19-related reasons, including voters with underlying health conditions susceptible to the virus and their caretakers.
In a statement, Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett said his office appreciates the judge’s ruling, calling the work by the attorney general’s office “excellent.”
Charlane Oliver of The Equity Alliance, one plaintiff that is a voter registration group that focuses on communities of color, described a variety of ways it wanted to distribute forms if the judge sided with them.
Her group wants to send absentee ballot requests to volunteers, help community members write their own requests, leave applications in community members’ mailboxes, link to the online application on its website and social media pages, text message it out, and include it in its safe voting kits, she wrote in a June court declaration.
“Many individuals The Equity Alliance helps do not have computers, internet access, printers, scanners, fax machines, postage, or envelopes to be able to mail, email, or fax their absentee requests to their respective county commissions as required by law,” Oliver wrote.
In the ruling on absentee forms, the judge wrote that the two sections of law that were likely confused are each “a separate law of a sovereign state, and a party constitutionally challenging one or the other needs to keep them straight.”
The state has explained that one restriction was passed in 2002 because various groups were creating forms labeled requests for absentee ballots that were unapproved by Tennessee’s election coordinator, and that confused voters because they counted as absentee applications as long as the correct information was collected.
Before the 2002 law, those forms could effectively serve “as an end-run around” the prohibition against distribution the official absentee voting applications, the judge wrote.