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First-time voters in Tennessee can now vote by mail for the November election. On Wednesday, a federal court judge ordered a temporary suspension of a law prohibiting first-time voters who register by mail or online from voting by mail.

“This is an important victory for Tennessee voters wishing to participate in the 2020 election [who] don’t want to have to choose between their health and exercising their right to vote,” said Danielle Lang, co-director of voting rights and redistricting at Campaign Legal Services, in a press release. “Especially during an election held during a pandemic, it is important that anybody be able to vote by absentee and mail ballot to encourage participation.”

Voters in Tennessee must provide an excuse in order to qualify for an absentee ballot.  Previously voters could not request an absentee ballot if they registered to vote by mail or online. Speaking with Prism last month, State Rep. London Lamar expressed concerns about the failure to expand absentee ballots to all eligible voters in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. She challenged alleged concerns that allowing all eligible voters to use absentee ballots would lead to voter fraud. 

“Even though the data stated that it does not influence voter fraud or the [other] egregious excuses that the Trump administration [has], they’re just really trying to slow down the ability for our communities to vote,” said Lamar.

Lamar shared that the existing law requiring first time voters who register online to vote in person also placed a burden on students who attend school outside of their home county.

Last month, the ACLU of Tennessee prevailed in part on a lawsuit permitting voters with an underlying health condition allowing them to apply for an absentee ballot for the upcoming election. The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned a lower court decision that expanded vote-by-mail options to all eligible voters. The two decisions have expanded the opportunity for some Tennessee voters to vote safely in November.

The ACLU of Tennessee also launched a campaign to increase vote-by-mail and early voting. “No one should have to choose between their health and their vote. Historically disenfranchised Americans are experiencing both the worst of voter suppression and the worst of the pandemic,” said Brandon Tucker, policy director for the ACLU of Tennessee, in a press release. “This campaign will provide voters with the tools they need to cast a ballot safely, so that we can all vote like our rights depend on it.”

Tennessee had a significant increase in voters using absentee ballots or voting early in the primary election. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, state legislatures and election officials have had more than enough time to make sure voters aren’t faced with choosing between their health and the right to vote.

“COVID-19 has shone a bright light on the cracks in our institutional systems, including access to the ballot box” said Ben Law, plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit, in a statement. “Tennessee can and must do better in the future.”

Anoa Changa

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.