Voting could be a matter of life or death in the upcoming August and November elections according to some Memphis voting right advocates and Tennessee Democratic state leaders.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the groups are calling on Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to “do the right thing” and allow universal absentee voting.
Their requests continue even after Lee announced during a press briefing Tuesday (May 12) that he won’t allow all voters to mail in their ballots.
Some who oppose the governor’s decision, like state Rep. London Lamar, called it “irresponsible” and “inconsiderate.”
“The lives of Tennesseans are at risk and despite the state opening back up, we as the legislature need to make sure we are implementing policies and systems that will keep all Tennesseans safe,” Lamar said during a virtual news conference hosted by the Tennessee Democratic Party (TNDP), Wednesday.
Lamar, who is seeking re-election in the upcoming Aug. 6 state Democratic party primary elections, called on Lee, Secretary of State Tre Hargett and State Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins to implement universal absentee voting.
Lamar said an official letter from the TNDP had been sent to the governor’s office.
Party primaries for federal offices, along with a county general election, also are scheduled for Aug. 6. State and federal elections, including the race for president, are Nov. 6.
Tennessee state law allows voters 60 and older, or those with an illness or disability, to vote by absentee ballots. Others allowed to vote absentee include individuals who will be outside of the county on election day, serving on a jury, or members of the military.
Lee has defended his decision, saying the state is working hard to “remove a reason to have fear about going to the polling booths.
“We have worked really, really hard to set up businesses in a way that people can feel safe to go into them, and we’re going to do the same thing with our elections,” Lee said, highlighting the state’s efforts to expand the number of polling places, while adhering to social distancing guidelines from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
Voter advocates said the state’s efforts aren’t enough and accused Republican leaders of using this as another tactic to further stifle the minority vote.
One of those advocates, who was not on the TNTP’s virtual conference but has been a stark supporter of universal absentee voting, was the Rev./Dr. Earle J. Fisher of #UptheVote901, a Memphis-based voting rights advocacy organization.
Fisher, who also serves as the senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Memphis, is also one of several plaintiffs in a pending lawsuit against the state of Tennessee.
The group is seeking a court order that will allow any voter to vote absentee during the coronavirus health crisis.
The lawsuit was filed May 1 by both Republican and Democrat voters and advocates, who also claimed that the state’s absentee ballot restrictions don’t factor in the COVID-19 crisis and further penalize organizations, such as #UptheVote901, that seek to increase voter participation.
“I think that Tennessee has shown its willingness to make it more difficult for black people to vote and engage in the political process,” Fisher said.
“Memphis is the hub of far too many poor and black people, so it only makes sense that if they’re talking about doing something in the interest of public safety – to give the people you know are most likely to be impacted by the coronavirus access to engage in the political process without endangering their lives,” Fisher said.
He continued, “We shouldn’t have to choose between our health and our family’s health by getting access to the most fundamental right in the democracy, which is the ballot box.”
Goins, the election coordinator, told The Associated Press, the “fear of getting ill does not fall under the definition of ill.”
Therefore, the case for universal absentee voting doesn’t meet the state’s requirements.
“First of all, we are in a pandemic,” Rep. Lamar said in response to Goins. “This is beyond a fear and there is evidence that people everywhere in the state and around the world are constantly dying from the coronavirus.
“Now we are asking voters to go to the polls within mere months of an order by Bill Lee urging us to stay home. That’s just ridiculous.”
As of Wednesday afternoon (May 13), there were 16,370 reported coronavirus cases in Tennessee, a 260-case increase from Tuesday, including 273 deaths, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.
In Shelby County, more than 3,462 confirmed cases were reported, up from 3,462 Tuesday, including 76 deaths.
During the news conference, it was clear that members of the TNDP weren’t confident in the Republican governor, nor the Republican-led legislature, which declined to adopt universal absentee ballots just before the legislative session recessed in mid-March.
“Republicans can’t be trusted to do the right thing anymore,” TNDP Chair Mary Mancini said. “They have made the decision to keep in place the strict absentee voter requirements and this will jeopardize the health of voters and poll workers.”
Still, members of the TNDP said they will continue to push for the measure. Lamar said she will be sure that it’s brought up when the legislation reconvenes in June.
“If universal absentee voting could save the life of at least one Tennessean, it is both necessary and beneficial,” said Lamar.
The absentee ballot request deadline in Shelby County is July 30.