Tennessee became one of the last states to expand mail-in voting earlier this month when Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled that voters under 60 can request an absentee ballot because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lyle's ruling has been appealed by the state of Tennessee, but the Supreme Court said earlier this month it won't consider the appeal in time for the August election.
That means voters in all 95 counties can request an absentee ballot, at least for that election.
Tennessee was one of a vast majority of states that had strict rules for requesting an absentee ballot before the pandemic hit. Voters had to be 60 or older, in the military or living out of town to make such a request. Additionally, voters with a medical condition that essentially left them bedridden could request a ballot.
When the pandemic hit, several voters under 60 with medical conditions that make them susceptible to coronavirus sued the state to expand absentee voting. The state argued that such expansion of absentee voting was logistically impossible and that mail-in voting is prone to fraud.
Lyle ruled that fear of the virus was a good enough reason to request a ballot. When the state posted a confusing absentee request form on its site, Lyle responded by changing the language on the request form to clearly state the COVID-19 pandemic is the reason voters are making the request.
The state appealed Lyle's ruling, but the appeal won't be considered until later this month. That means voters are allowed to request an absentee ballot from the county election commissions for the August election.
It's murkier for November because state law allows voters to begin requesting absentee ballots 90 days prior to the election. For the November presidential election, that would be Aug. 2.
The appeal is likely to be heard in mid-July, with a ruling shortly after that, so voters will know at that time whether they can make the request for November.
Requesting an absentee ballot is not necessarily as simple as it seems because of Tennessee's photo identification law for voting.
Only people who have already been approved as "in-person" voters by their local election commission can request an absentee ballot. This designation applies to any registered voter who has cast a ballot in person at a precinct and showed their government ID to a poll worker.
But if you registered to vote for the first time, either because you turned 18 and this is your first election or because you recently moved to Tennessee, you will not have the "in-person" designation.
Lisa Quigley, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, raised the issue of the required designation in a Twitter thread that went viral over the weekend.
Quigley recommends that first-time voters and new Tennessee voters visit their election commission, bringing along a government photo ID, and request their absentee ballot in person to meet the requirement.
This is especially critical for college students, for whom the photo ID requirement has already proven confusing in recent elections, Quigley said. Cooper and state Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, teamed up to get the word out about absentee voting and the ID requirement in a series of voter registration events they led at Nashville high schools. Cooper and Dickerson were accompanied by election officials so that when high school students registered with a photo ID, they were marked "in-person" and therefore had the ability to vote by mail if they went to college out of town the next year.
Making the request in-person at the election commission will allow first-time voters to be approved to vote by mail in August.
In a federal court case in which plaintiffs are also seeking to expand absentee voting because of the pandemic, the state of Tennessee has indicated that it will not loosen its interpretation of the photo ID requirement for absentee requests due to the pandemic.