A federal court says Tennessee can’t require first-time voters to appear in person at the polls.

A federal court says Tennessee can’t require first-time voters to appear in person at the polls.

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A federal appeals court on Monday exempted first-time Tennessee voters from having to appear in person at the polls on Election Day if they registered online or by mail, as required by state law. Critics of the law said it would endanger residents during the pandemic.

Siding with civil rights and union groups, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati denied an emergency motion by Tennessee election officials for a stay so that they could enforce the law while it was being litigated.

The court’s unanimous ruling upheld a preliminary injunction that had been granted on Sept. 9 by a district court in Tennessee. The state ranked 12th nationally in the number of virus cases per capita as of Monday, according to a New York Times database.

In their 16-page ruling, the three federal judges who heard the case noted that state election officials had waited a month after the district court’s order to request a stay, and that many of those who would have been affected by the rule might have already voted.

“Given that there are approximately 128,000 first-time voters in Tennessee to whom the first-time voter requirement would apply, the confusion caused by a stay of the district court’s order at this juncture could be relatively widespread,” the judges wrote. “This confusion could lead to frustration and, conceivably, to voters’ decisions not to partake in an ever-changing process.”

Election officials are allowed to deputize residents to register new voters at places that include churches, which exempts them from having to appear in person at the polls, Suzanne Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Shelby County Election Commission in Memphis, said in an interview on Monday night.

Early voting began last week in Tennessee.

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