Judge won’t halt Tennessee ban on giving out mail vote form

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A federal judge won’t block a Tennessee law for the November election that makes it a felony for anyone other than election officials to distribute absentee ballot applications.

U.S. District Judge Eli Richardson in Nashville denied the preliminary injunction late Wednesday, determining the law doesn’t restrict First Amendment speech.

The judge said people should lobby lawmakers if they think the law is too broad, enforced too harshly, or out of step with the Internet era — since the form is now available online.

Richardson wrote that “the Court does not sit as a super-legislature, deciding whether it likes the law and then determining whether to enjoin enforcement of the law accordingly.”

The lawsuit’s plaintiffs, which include Tennessee’s NAACP chapter, The Equity Alliance, which focuses on Black voter registration, and others, claim the law violates First Amendment rights, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic and especially for those without a reliable computer, printer or Internet access.

Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office noted Richardson’s reference to Democrats and Republicans contributing to the law, which was passed in 1979 and amended in 1994.

“This decision supports our efforts to maintain the integrity that past and current legislatures and governors have sought for Tennessee voters,” said Hargett spokesperson Julia Bruck.

Tennessee has seen several of its absentee voting laws end up in court due to the increase in mail voting during the pandemic.

In a related lawsuit by most of the same plaintiffs, Richardson has blocked a law for November that bars otherwise eligible first-time voters from casting ballots by mail unless they show identification at an election office beforehand. As it stands, first-time voters won’t need to take the extra step under the ruling.

He also declined the plaintiffs’ request to change the state’s signature-matching requirement to require a chance for voters to fix signature issues. The plaintiffs have appealed that decision.

The Aug. 6 primary was conducted with much broader accessibility for absentee voting, since a state court judge in June ordered that all eligible voters should have an absentee voting option during the health crisis.

But the state Supreme Court overturned the absentee expansion last month, restoring Tennessee’s excuse-based absentee voting system and citing the state’s promise — made for the first time in front of the high court — that people can vote by mail if they believe they or someone in their care face a higher risk of COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions.