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Tennessee court rules all voters may cast absentee ballots in 2020

June 4 (UPI) -- A Tennessee court has ruled that all eligible voters in the state may vote by mail for the entire 2020 calendar, including in the November presidential election, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled Thursday night that due to the pandemic the state's requirement that all but a select few must cast ballots in person "constitutes an unreasonable burden on the fundamental right to vote guaranteed by the Tennessee Constitution."

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According to the Tennessee Secretary of State's office, absentee voting is permitted to those who fall under specific categories, such as seniors, the sick and disabled who can't access polling stations, out-of-country travelers, out-of-state students and those who will miss the vote due to jury duty, among others.

In the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee on behalf of several registered voters who either suffer from or live with those suffering from autoimmune conditions, the plaintiffs argued they will not be able to vote in upcoming elections due to the risk of contracting or transmitting the deadly and infectious coronavirus.

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None of the plaintiffs qualified for absentee ballots under the state's rules and were required to vote in person. The state has implemented social distancing requirements to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but cannot mandate voters to wear masks at polling stations.

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The state argued that unlike two-thirds of other states that offer absentee ballots or the 11 states that have relaxed voting-by-mail restrictions this year due to the pandemic, it lacked the money, personnel and equipment for increased voting by mail. It also cited fears of voter fraud.

While the decision is likely to be appealed, Lyle ruled the state's evidence does not support its claims and that its fiscal and resource calculations are "oddly skewed."

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"When, however, normal industry-recognized assumptions are used, the evidence establishes that the resources are there to provide temporary expanded access to voting by mail in Tennessee during the pandemic if the State provides the leadership and motivation as other states have done," Lyle wrote. "As to voter fraud, the State's own expert debunks and rejects that as a reason for not expanding access to voting by mail."

"This is a major victory for voting rights," Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. "This ruling eliminates the excuse requirement for the 2020 elections, meaning Tennesseans will not have to risk their health in order to vote."

Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery rebuked the ruling, stating it failed to take into consideration the "comprehensive COVID-19 election plan" they have put together that meets the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines.

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"It is yet another court decision replacing legislation passed by the people's elected officials with its own judgment, largely ignoring the practicalities of implementing such a decision, and doing so in the midst of a pandemic and budget crisis," Slatery said in a statement.

The ruling comes amid a larger debate over mail voting, with President Donald Trump, and other GOP politicians, condemning the practice, stating it will lead to rampant voter fraud.

Late last month, Twitter placed labels indicating harmful and misleading information on two tweets from the president that allege mail-in 2020 election ballots will be "substantially fraudulent."

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Days later, Trump signed an executive order seeking to limit the legal protections of Twitter and other social media companies if they censure or edit user posts.

Ben Lay, a plaintiff in the case, said in a statement Thursday that he is "grateful" to be able to vote by mail.

"Though I am disabled and my wife and I both have conditions that compromise our immune systems, we were barred from voting by mail before," he said. "Thanks to the court, I can now exercise my right to vote without putting my health or the health of my wife at risk."

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The ruling follows a three-judge panel on Thursday blocking a lower court's ruling that would have permitted all Texan voters to qualify to vote by mail during the pandemic.

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