The Investigators: All Tennessee voters can request absentee ballots during the pandemic. What’s next and how do you get one?

Updated: Jun. 5, 2020 at 6:18 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - All Tennessee voters can now request an absentee ballot following a judge’s ruling that allows mail-in ballots for anyone who doesn’t feel safe going to the polls because of COVID-19.

“Another voter suppression opportunity has been struck down in the court system,” said Tennessee State Representative London Lamar in a virtual press conference Friday.

Chancellor Ellen Lyles sided with a group of Tennessee voters Thursday who argued, in two separate lawsuits, that the state’s requirements for absentee ballots should be lifted because of COVID-19.

In her ruling, Chancellor Lyles said Tennessee’s absentee ballot restrictions “during the unique circumstances of the pandemic, constitutes an unreasonable burden on the fundamental right to vote guaranteed by the Tennessee Constitution."

“Today is a reminder that people’s Constitutional rights will be protected in the court system. Today is another reminder that your right to vote will be protected even during a pandemic,” said Rep. Lamar.

Lamar tried to push legislation earlier this week to accomplish what the Judge’s ruling ultimately does, by allowing any registered voter the ability to request an absentee ballot.

However, Attorney General Herbert Slatery III said Friday that he plans to appeal the decision, which he said "unnecessarily risks voter confusion, potential voter fraud, and election disruption.”

“Absentee ballots, because they are received and voted outside of the supervision of election officials, that makes them the most vulnerable to vote fraud,” said Hans Von Spakovsky with The Heritage Foundation, a Conservative think-tank based in D.C.

The Heritage Foundation tracks proven instances of voter fraud.

In its online database of 1,285 cases that date back 38 years, The Investigators counted 206 involved Fraudulent Use of Absentee Ballots. That’s about 16%.

The same database shows of the ten confirmed cases of vote fraud in Tennessee over a 15-year period, none involved absentee ballots.

“How big of an issue is it? We don’t know. The problem is it’s extremely hard to detect,” said Von Spakovsky.

However, Lamar says COVID-19 is the real threat, not vote fraud.

“This is the safest and most effective for us to implement safety precautions for people to exercise their right to vote,” she said.

To vote absentee, you must request a ballot by filling out and mailing a request form from either your local or the state election commissions by July 30.

Friday afternoon, The Investigators noticed the Secretary of State had taken down its absentee ballot request form.

It was put back online in late afternoon with a revised line that says “I have determined it is impossible or unreasonable to vote in-person due to the COVID-19 situation, and therefore qualify as hospitalized, ill, or disabled and unable to appear at my polling place.”

However, Shelby County Election Commissioner Linda Phillips told The Investigators Friday that the state Division of Elections said to hold off on sending absentee ballots to those who check that box.

The Investigators are continuing to look into the issue.

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