A Nashville judge rebuked Tennessee's top election officials on Thursday, threatening them with criminal contempt of court if they don't abide by her order to update the state's absentee voting request form to accommodate those who wish to vote by mail due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled last week that the pandemic is a justified reason for voters to ask for an absentee ballot. Lyle's order came in a lawsuit filed by plaintiffs with health conditions they said made them fearful to vote in person, but didn't meet the state's accepted reasons for voting by mail.
After Lyle's ruling, the state posted a new absentee request form online. But plaintiffs said the new form was confusing and that it didn't follow the judge's order. In response, they filed motions earlier this week seeking sanctions against the state and asking Lyle to clarify her order.
Lyle gave Mark Goins, Tennessee coordinator of elections, and Secretary of State Tre Hargett until noon on Friday to post the new form. Lyle ordered that wording be added to the existing absentee request form making clear the COVID-19 situation is a sufficient reason to vote by mail.
The state disregarded Lyle's initial order and posted a new request form with an entirely new section regarding the pandemic. Lyle said the state should have filed a motion to sort out any confusion.
She said it is a commonly followed judicial rule to file such motions and the state's actions in posting its own request form amounted to disregard for her initial ruling.
"I just really have to say to that point, shame on you for not following that procedure, and just taking matters into your own hands," Lyle said. "So I'm calling the state out on that for not adhering to the standards of legal process and not adhering to the order."
Lyle said she will also file an order directing the state how to provide instructions to county election officials in explaining how to address absentee ballot requests due to the pandemic.
Voters providing care for someone quarantined at home because of the pandemic will also be able to request an absentee ballot, Lyle ruled.
Lyle's order means voters may request the forms at least for now, but the state has already appealed her initial ruling.
Tennessee was one of only five states not to expand vote-by-mail rules due to the pandemic. Previously voters 60 years old or older could request absentee ballots, in addition to military members and people so sick they were bed-ridden.
Lyle rejected the plaintiffs' request for sanctions, but left the window open for criminal contempt charges if Hargett and Goins do not abide by her order.
"The court is not going to issue the sanctions, however there always is the spectre of criminal contempt," Lyle said. "If after today's orders there's still noncompliance and there's disobedience, then that's a route that the court can go."
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