State says vote-by-mail shouldn't expand because 'we can't help' voters

Posted at 9:33 PM, Jun 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-03 23:31:51-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A judge is set to rule Thursday in a case that could allow any registered voter to request a mail-in ballot for any reason in Tennessee, including if they’re afraid of catching COVID-19 at their polling place this year. That's not a currently acceptable reason to request a vote-by-mail ballot under Tennessee law.

In chancery court arguments held over Zoom Tuesday in light of the Coronavirus, state elections officials said if vote-by-mail is expanded throughout Tennessee because of COVID-19 concerns, thousands of voters would likely have their votes thrown out; the state says voters would be confused by ballot instructions and potentially make a mistake that would invalidate their ballot, without an in-person poll worker to help them.

"We can’t help them with the same type of machine prompts and poll worker assistance that’s happening when you go to an election site," said Alex Rieger with the Attorney General’s office.

But attorneys for those suing to expand absentee voting say it’s up to each voter to pay attention while voting, especially if they choose to not go to a polling place for fear of catching the Coronavirus.

"They can decide to carefully fill out their absentee ballot to minimize the risk of accidental disenfranchisement, as opposed to the risk of being forced to go to a COVID-19 infested polling place," said Steve Mulroy, attorney for the lawsuit plaintiffs.

The state argued that if Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle rules that all registered voters can request to vote-by-mail, it would then spend money to print enough ballots for every registered voter, even though the state’s own experts say that’s not necessary, because of voter turnout rates.

Chancellor Lyle questioned that reasoning in court.

"I just want to make sure I understand the position because it seems a little unusual, so I just want to make sure I understand it," Lyle said.

"Tennessee officials are not going to risk having anyone who is capable of voting absentee not have a ballot so yes we will prepare ballots for the election for 1.4 million registered voters for both August and November," Reiger responded.

"Alright, so you’re telling me you would spend that money," Lyle replied.