Sharing an absentee ballot request form can be prosecuted as a felony in Tennessee if the sharer is not an election commission employee.
A new lawsuit that aims to change the system before the November general election calls the restriction on sharing the form, which is freely available on the Secretary of State’s website, a limit to free speech.
The new filing joins a pair of cases at both the state and federal level aimed at expanding access to voting-by-mail during the novel coronavirus pandemic as record numbers of absentee ballots were returned in the August primary election.
Individuals and organizations who work on civic engagement initiatives like voter registration cite the law as a burden to their personal rights and also to the rights of the voting population.
A Memphis labor organizer, the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP, the Equity Alliance, the Memphis A. Phillip Randolph Institute and voter advocacy organization Free Hearts filed the federal lawsuit Friday in Nashville.
In the lawsuit, the groups argue the law “serves no purpose, unreasonably restricts how they can engage voters and “imposes an extraordinarily burdensome restraint on (their) right of free speech.”
The groups are asking a federal judge to find the law unconstitutional and block the state from enforcing it.
Secretary of State Tre Hargett, Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins and Shelby Count District Attorney General Amy Weirich are named as defendants.
Tennessee requires eligible voters to provide an excuse for why they cannot vote in person — which now includes an allowance for those with underlying conditions that may make them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or who are at greater risk should they contract it and their caretakers.
Jeffery Lichtenstein, a labor organizer and Memphis resident and the lead plaintiff, often leads voter advocacy events through his work with the West Tennessee AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, including sharing voter registration forms and other documents, the suit says.
“He knows through personal experience that the most effective way to engage voters is to give them everything they need to vote. This Fall, Mr. Lichtenstein similarly wishes to distribute absentee ballot applications to voters in advance of the November election because he knows it is far more effective than directing them to the Secretary of State or Shelby County Election Commission websites,” the suit said.
Similar arguments are made in the lawsuit for the work of the other plaintiffs, arguing the threat of criminal sanctions are an unconstitutionally high burden.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs and the state attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s office declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
Reach reporter Mariah Timms at email@example.com or 615-259-8344 and on Twitter @MariahTimms.