By Peter White
NASHVILLE, TN — A big battle is brewing on Capitol Hill between the Republican super-majority and the Democratic minority over voting by mail in November. On March 19, Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) tried to get the Republicans to agree to universal absentee voting for the 2020 election.
“It was on the day that we recessed. They voted to end the discussion, to table it,” Johnson recalled. She said the vote was 60 to 20 something and along party lines.
Under current voter election rules you have to be over 60 or have some disability to get an absentee ballot. Democrats want all voters to have one this year.
“It is shocking to me how they have absolutely no response to why this is a bad idea—a realistic response to why this is a bad idea, and still they all jump in line,” she said.
Election Coordinator Mark Goins said that a fear of getting COVID-19 doesn’t fit the definition of being sick from it. “First, of all, I want to say ‘Wait a minute!’,” said Rep. London Lamar (D, Memphis). “We are in a pandemic. This is not like being afraid of catching the common cold or flu or something simple. We are in a pandemic with a virus we do not have a cure for,” said Lamar.
She said people are dying every day from the disease in Tennessee and around the world and absentee voting will keep people safe at home without risking contracting the virus.
Legislators held a marathon 14-hour final session March 19, passed a $39.8 billion budget and a number of other items in one day, all before recessing in light of the pandemic. They acted on the reasonable fear of contracting COVID-19 themselves. By rejecting the proposal to supply voters with mail-in ballots, the Republicans showed no such concern for their constituents.
“I am officially calling on Gov. Bill Lee, Sec. of State Tre Hargett, Election Commissioner Mark Goins and the Tennessee Legislature to implement universal absentee voting,” Lamar said.
Johnson said the Democrats will bring up the issue again as soon as the Legislature reconvenes around June 1. In the meantime, the Democratic caucus sent a letter to Hargett asking him to implement universal or “No Excuse’ absentee voting. He has not responded.
Because of the pandemic, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission gave almost $8 million to Tennessee for 2020 Election expenses. Other states are also getting federal help and 30 are preparing to have their citizens cast their ballots by mail if they choose to, according to Johnson. South Carolina passed absentee voting two weeks ago.
Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cocke County) led the opposition to universal absentee balloting in Tennessee. He objected to the expense and said voting by mail was prone to fraud. He offered no evidence to back the claim and mentioned a time when a vote could be bought for a bottle of whiskey.
“It’s just ridiculous. Hey, it’s 2020, Buddy. Wake up,” Johnson said.
Meanwhile in Washington last week, the House passed a bill to vote remotely for the first time in it’s its 231-year history. The pandemic was the reason. The vote was 217-189. Democrats hold a majority in the House of Representatives. Republicans hold a majority of both houses in Tennessee.
It costs $3.15 to print and return a mail-in ballot. With 4 million registered voters, it would cost $12 million if every Tennessean voted by mail. The feds would pay 2/3 of that cost, so Tennessee would pay $4 million.
But the Democrats are not calling to eliminate all polling places in elections although it might be a good idea. Tennessee is dead last when it comes to voter turnout and the current system is clearly not working well. Five states no longer hold elections using polling stations. Citizens in Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington all vote by mail.
“Tennessee is always at the bottom when it comes to voter participation. And the rate is going to be worse because of this pandemic. Do we really want to continue to be last when it come to making sure our citizens have the right to vote?” asked Lamar.
“It’s a choice not to protect the citizens the exact same way they’re not expanding Medicaid. It’s a choice not to protect the citizens. They vote against people and keeping Tennessean safe all the time,” Johnson complained.
Johnson said Republicans have no argument—at least no good one. They did not vote for universal absentee ballots because they like the way things are now. It’s a voting a system that in many ways disenfranchises minorities and the working poor.
“There’s a reason we’re in the bottom of the nation for percentage of people voting and it’s because of voter suppression. It’s because they don’t allow student IDs, it’s because they passed an unconstitutional bill for voting. It is because they will not allow people to vote safely in a pandemic with absentee voting. It’s absolutely voter suppression and it’s intentional,” Johnson said.
The ACLU filed suit in Chancery Court in Davidson County last week seeking to make absentee voting available to all eligible Tennessee voters during the COVID-19 pandemic. The case was brought on behalf of several Tennesseans whose health would be at risk if forced to vote in person while COVID-19 is spreading.
Most states allow any eligible voter to cast an absentee ballot, but Tennessee requires that voters provide an excuse to do so. The ACLU says the vast majority of voters would be forced to vote in person — or avoid voting at all for fear of becoming ill, and that thousands of voters would be disenfranchised.
“I am a disabled, two-time cancer survivor and my wife takes medication for a chronic condition that leaves her immune-compromised. The only way we can vote safely right now is through a mail-in ballot, but under current state law, we don’t qualify,” said plaintiff Ben Lay. “We are suing the state because we shouldn’t have to choose between our health and our vote — no one should,” Lay said.