In response to a ruling by the state Supreme Court, Tennessee’s Secretary of State has created a new absentee ballot application, this time not mentioning COVID-19 while offering a $1,000 reward for reports of voter fraud.
Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s ruling that let all eligible voters cast an absentee ballot due to COVID-19. In its ruling, the court ordered the state to issue “appropriate guidance” to voters informing those with underlying health conditions or who are caretakers that they can cast absentee ballots.
In the days since, Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office has changed the absentee ballot application to what it deems reflective of the court’s ruling.
The updated application, however, is silent on COVID-19 while encouraging voters to report suspected cases of voter fraud.
Earlier this year, the state was forced to change the absentee ballot application after Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle issued a ruling that said voters with concerns about COVID-19 could request one.
In recent weeks, the office scrubbed that language from the new application. While voters with underlying health conditions or caretakers who are concerned about COVID-19 are able to apply for an absentee ballot, there is no mention of the pandemic on the application.
State’s website offers clarity
A section on the state’s website offers such clarity, saying those voters can request an absentee ballot.
“Voters who have an illness, physical disability or other underlying health condition that makes them especially vulnerable to COVID-19, and who, because of that condition, are unable to appear in the polling place on Election Day and instead wish to vote by-mail should check this box,” the state says in its frequently asked questions section.
The Secretary of State’s office said voters who may be vulnerable to COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions should consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s website says the following medical conditions could result in an increased risk of illness from COVID-19:
- chronic kidney disease;
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease;
- immunocompromised state from solid organ transplant;
- serious heart conditions, including heart failure, coronary artery disease and cardiomyopathies;
- sickle cell disease; and
- Type 2 diabetes.
The CDC said other conditions that might leave people at increased risk include asthma, cystic fibrosis, high blood pressure, liver disease, pregnancy, pulmonary fibrosis and smoking.
Attorneys for the state have conceded voters, not a physician, will be able to decide if they are at increased risk for COVID-19 and thus able to request an absentee ballot.
The FAQ section on the Secretary of State’s website also mentions COVID-19 while explaining caretakers are eligible to request an absentee ballot.
On Wednesday, after The Tennessean asked spokesperson Julia Bruck how the Secretary of State would inform voters of the changes, the office sent out a news release reiterating the expanded eligibility.
“In Tennessee, voters must have a legal reason listed in the law to be eligible to vote absentee by-mail. Some of the most common legal reasons are voters who are 60 or older and voters who will be out of their counties during the election,” the release said.
“Eligible voters who have a special vulnerability to COVID-19 due to an underlying illness, physical disability, or other health condition and who cannot appear at the polling place on Election Day due to this condition may vote by absentee ballot under the ‘illness or physical disability’ reason. Likewise, eligible voters who are caretakers to individuals with a special vulnerability may vote by absentee ballot under the ‘caretaker’ reason.”
Bruck said the language included on the application is “taken from state code and has been for years.”
“COVID-19 is clearly listed on the instructions that counties are providing for absentee by-mail voters,” she added.
Reward for tips on voter fraud
Beyond the information about valid excuses to request an absentee ballot, the state added a new section on applications that is highlighted in bright yellow.
“NOTICE: You may be eligible for a reward of up to $1,000 if you make a report of voter fraud that leads to a conviction,” the document states, encouraging people to contact the state’s voter fraud hotline.
Such language was not on the absentee ballot application for the August primary. Bruck said the voter fraud notice was added after the plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit mentioned ways the state could protect against voter fraud.
“Coordinator Goins agreed with the plaintiffs that this would be a deterrent to voter fraud so he placed the hotline information on the form,” she said.
Steve Mulroy, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the voter hotline was mentioned in their Supreme Court brief as one of many different mechanisms the state uses to curb election fraud. Mulroy said the court agreed with the plaintiffs assertion the state had a multitude of safeguards in place to prevent voter fraud.
“The trial court did not find the State’s evidence regarding the risk of fraud which would result from an increase in absentee voting by mail persuasive. We tend to agree,” the Supreme Court wrote in its Aug. 3 ruling.
Mulroy said, “That is not the same thing as saying on the very form where a lay voter, untrained in the law, has to sign under penalty of perjury that it is a good idea to highlight in yellow.”
He said the clear effect of the language, if not the intent, by the state is to dissuade voters or get them to second-guess themselves. Asked to quantify how many instances of suspected voter fraud the Secretary of State’s office had during the primary election, Bruck declined to offer any examples.
“We don’t comment on-going (sic) investigations,” Bruck said by email.
After the 2016 general election, Hargett reported only 42 possible cases of voter fraud among the more than 4.3 million ballots cast. Only one of the suspected cases was a result of absentee voting.
The state’s latest changes to the absentee ballot system are being challenged by attorneys working on behalf of the plaintiffs who initiated the absentee ballot lawsuit earlier this year.
A status conference is scheduled to take place in front of Lyle on Thursday. Attorneys for the state are asking the judge to dismiss the case.
Voters have until Oct. 27 to apply for an absentee ballot from their local election commission. Ballots are not expected to be sent out until mid- or late September.
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Reach Joel Ebert at [email protected] or 615-772-1681 and on Twitter @joelebert29.