The Tennessee Democratic Party and its U.S. Senate nominee Marquita Bradshaw filed a lawsuit Sunday against the state, accusing the Secretary of State’s office of refusing to release the names of those who have not yet returned an absentee ballot.
According to the lawsuit filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, the state’s public records law requires elections officials to release a list of voters who have not returned absentee ballots at the end of early voting.
“Transparent administration of the electoral process is central to our democracy,” Ken Taylor, Bradshaw’s campaign manager, said in a statement released by the state party. “The statute is clear. Voters have a right to know if their vote was received and counted. To not release the names of those who have and have not returned absentee ballots is not only illegal, it erodes the foundation of our democracy and equates to blatant voter suppression.”
The Secretary of State’s office said the lawsuit is inaccurate.
“At best the filing is inaccurate and at worst misinformation,” Secretary of State’s office spokesperson Julia Bruck said a statement by email.
“With less than 48 hours before the polls open across Tennessee, this filing further distracts county elections officials from their critical work of conducting this election safely, responsibly, and sensibly.”
The Bradshaw campaign and state Democratic Party requested from all 95 counties on Friday information on voters who were mailed absentee ballots but had not yet returned them, according to the lawsuit. They made the same request of the state Division of Elections, the lawsuit states.
“More disturbingly, defendants also instructed local county election administrators across the State of Tennessee to ignore the law and not provide plaintiffs with the requested information,” the lawsuit contends.
The party and the Bradshaw campaign want the information in an effort to boost voter turnout on Election Day, arguing the information they requested is a routine tool campaigns use to increase participation.
Without the information, the campaign is “unable to learn which absentee voters need not be bothered about returning their ballots, and which voters may need contact from
the campaign and further information,” the lawsuit states.
Voter registration and voter history is a public record in Tennessee and open to public inspection. Lists with that information can be purchased, provided they are used for political purposes, according to state law.
When asked for clarification about voter files and public records, Bruck cited the pending litigation and did not provide further information.
“Unfortunately, the issue is now under litigation,” she said by email. “You will need to contact the Office of the Attorney General.”
Bruck would not say what the Secretary of State’s office considered inaccurate in the lawsuit. “When the hearing is set, that will be discussed,” she said by email.
A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office did not immediately return an email seeking comment on the new lawsuit.
Bradshaw, a progressive Democrat from Memphis, is up against Republican Bill Hagerty, the former U.S. ambassador to Japan, in the race to succeed the retiring U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.
Sunday’s lawsuit is just the latest in a flurry of activity this year over absentee ballots and voter access in Tennessee.
With Election Day on Tuesday, the Tennessee Democratic Party is seeking an expediated hearing in the case.
Tennessee has seen a record number of absentee and by-mail ballots this year. On Friday, the Secretary of State’s office reported that more than half of all registered Tennessee voters have already cast their ballots.
If an absentee ballot was mailed in time for local election officials to receive it by the close of polls Tuesday, it will be counted. Voters can track their ballot at tnmap.tn.gov/voterlookup.
In addition, the state and the U.S. Postal Service have identified 95 offices — one in every county — where voters can take a ballot on Election Day to mail and have it received in time. Ballots still require postage.
If a voter mailed a ballot but is unsure it arrived on time, the person can go to their precinct and cast a provisional ballot.
Election officials will count the absentee ballot if it arrived on time and discard the provisional ballot. If they didn’t receive the absentee ballot by the times polls close, they will count the provisional ballot, according to a memo from the state’s elections coordinator.