State of Tennessee

Tennessee 2020 Absentee Voting Challenge

Memphis A. Philip Randolph Institute v. Hargett

Lawsuit filed on behalf of Tennessee voters, the Tennessee NAACP, the Memphis A. Philip Randolph Institute and other groups against Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett (R) and other Tennessee election officials challenging Tennessee’s absentee voting guidelines in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plaintiffs allege that the criteria for mail-in voting in the context of the pandemic is “overly narrow” as Tennessee is one of seven states that “continues to require their voters to provide an excuse before they may vote by absentee ballot.” 

The complaint argues that Tennessee’s mail-in voting criteria violates the First and 14th Amendments by prohibiting certain voters without a “qualifying excuse” from using mail-in ballots — even in the context of a pandemic — thereby violating their fundamental right to vote. The plaintiffs also claim that the state’s criminalization of certain voter outreach activities — including sending absentee ballots to eligible voters — violates the First Amendment right to free speech and assembly. Additionally, the plaintiffs allege the inability to cure a mismatched signature deprives voters of due process in violation of the 14th Amendment. The plaintiffs asked the court to declare the challenged laws unconstitutional, block the enforcement of the contested laws and order the defendants to expand mail-in voting options and processes to accommodate voting during the pandemic.

The court declined to grant preliminary relief for the state’s Aug. 6, 2020 primary but left the plaintiffs’ request pending for the Nov. 3, 2020 election. For the Nov. 3, election, the court granted a preliminary injunction that allowed first-time voters to vote using mail-in ballots, but denied the plaintiffs’ motion as it pertained to an “unsolicited request for applicaiton[s] for absentee ballots” and the signature verification scheme. The defendants asked the district court to reconsider its decision, which it denied, and ultimately appealed the decision that granted relief for first-time voters to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On June 22, 2021, the 6th Circuit vacated the district court’s preliminary injunction as it pertained to first-time voters and remanded the case to the district court for future proceedings. The case was dismissed on July 9, 2021, but litigation about attorneys’ fees is ongoing in the 6th Circuit.

Case Documents

Case Documents (U.S. Court of Appeals 6th Circuit)

Last updated: