NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A panel of federal appellate judges on Tuesday reinstated a Tennessee law requiring first-time voters in the state to appear in person to vote, reasoning in part that the COVID-19 pandemic is "unlikely to pose a serious threat during the next election cycle."
In a 2-1 decision, a 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel overturned a lower court's ruling in September that blocked the restriction on absentee voting ahead of the 2020 general election. In October, a panel from the 6th Circuit decided to keep the preliminary injunction, with Judge Julia Smith Gibbons ruling that the court shouldn't disrupt the new rules at that late stage in the election.
In reinstating the requirement, the same judge wrote Tuesday that there is not a “reasonable expectation” that voters will again face the same kind of burdens they did during the fall 2020 election.
“Fortunately, because of advancements in COVID-19 vaccinations and treatment since this case began, the COVID-19 pandemic is unlikely to pose a serious threat during the next election cycle,” the ruling states.
The judge also said the legal standing to bring the case, through a member of the Tennessee NAACP, disappeared once the state Supreme Court separately rolled back another judge's widespread expansion of a vote-by-mail option last year.
The absentee voting fights unfolded in state and federal courts in Republican-tilted Tennessee while legal challenges over mail voting grabbed the spotlight in battleground states during the last election. The absentee voting expansion in state court even prompted angry Republican lawmakers to make an unsuccessful try at removing the judge from office. Instead, they passed a reconfiguration of how constitutional challenges against the state will be heard.
In a concurring opinion on the first-time voter restriction, Judge Chad Readler stated that a court “should have little trouble, in a future case, finding that Tennessee’s law operates safely within constitutional parameters.”
In dissent, Judge Karen Nelson Moore accused the majority of “haphazardly wielding the law and the facts,” saying they are ignoring the evidence suggesting many Tennessee voters will again be qualified to vote absentee next election, but barred from doing so because of the in-person requirement.
She wrote that advancements in COVID-19 vaccinations and treatments are “worthy of celebration,” but she said it's hard to tell how the pandemic will evolve in the coming months and years.
“Words cloaked in our robes carry real weight, and I am loath to minimize a disease that has killed about 600,000 Americans and over 3,800,000 persons worldwide,” Moore wrote.
The law requires first-time voters to cast a ballot in person or show ID at the local election office before voting by mail, if they qualify.
After the law was blocked by a federal judge, officials instead required certain blocs of first-time voters to submit a copy of their ID, from a driver's license to a utility bill, during the absentee voting process.