June 2, 2020
The Senate State and Local Government Committee discussed two election bills during what was likely their last hearing of the year. It voted down a bill to expand absentee voting during the pandemic and passed one about candidate filing deadlines.
The failed bill (Robinson, D-Memphis), sought to expand absentee voting to two groups of voters: all first-time voters and any registered voter during a public health crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic. Currently, a voter who has registered to vote online, by mail or through a third-party voter-registration drive must first vote in person before requesting an absentee ballot. And absentee voting is restricted to voters with qualifying excuses, like age, illness or disability.
The Committee discussed two different ways to expand access to absentee voting for all registered voters. The first, in an amendment from Senator Robinson, would have waived the absentee excuse requirement this year due to concerns about Covid-19. Senator Robinson agreed to withdraw her amendment in favor of one introduced by Senator Dickerson (R-Nashville). His proposed amendment would have introduced a new absentee excuse covering a person who is concerned of exposure to a contagion during a public health emergency resulting in a governor-declared State of Emergency.
The Committee heard testimony from Fiona Prine, a Covid-19 survivor who lost her husband, John Prine, to the illness. She detailed the physical and emotional toll the disease took on her family and called on legislators to ensure all voters could request an absentee ballot this year.
After much discussion and calls from some members to hear from Secretary of State Hargett, the Committee recessed. It reconvened an hour later and resumed its discussion, still without Secretary of State Hargett or his staff.
Senator Kelsey (R-Germantown) moved to end the debate and called for the vote. The amendment was rejected 6-2-1, with Senators Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), Jackson (R-Jackson), Kelsey, Reeves (R-Murfreesboro), White (R-Murfreesboro) and Yager (R-Kingston) against, Senators Dickerson and Yarbro (D-Nashville) in favor and Senator Briggs (R-Knoxville) abstaining.