Reproductive Rights

Federal Court Orders Recount of Vote on Anti-Abortion Tennessee Ballot Measure

A federal court on Friday ordered Tennessee election officials to recount the votes cast during the 2014 election on Amendment 1, an anti-abortion state constitutional amendment.

Chief Judge Kevin Sharp of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee ruled that the state did not count the votes in the manner proscribed by the Tennessee state constitution, which requires that any state constitutional amendment pass “by a majority of all the citizens of the state voting for Governor.” Judge Sharp gave state officials 20 days to submit a timeline for the recount to the court for approval.

Amendment 1 narrowly passed in November 2014 with 53 percent of the vote. The amendment declares that there is no right to abortion in Tennessee, even in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. Since its passage, state lawmakers have passed at least five laws restricting abortion access, including a 48-hour waiting period coupled with mandatory state counseling that requires at least two trips to a clinic, insurance coverage restrictions, and a ban on telemedicine for medication abortion.

Directly after the 2014 election, eight Tennessee voters—including two professors at Vanderbilt University, an obstetrician/gynecologist, a pastor, a social worker, a registered nurse, a volunteer coordinator for a non-profit, and a former director of a county public health department—challenged the vote. They argued that the Tennessee constitution mandated that when counting votes for a proposed amendment, the state could only count the votes of those individuals who voted both in the governor’s race and on the amendment. The court agreed.

There were 71,971 votes separating the “yes” votes on Amendment 1 from the “no” votes. On Monday, Tracy George, a Vanderbilt law professor who is also a board member of Planned Parenthood of Middle & East Tennessee and a plaintiff in the case, told reporters that there was a “good probability” that the amendment would fail to pass after the recount. Mother Jones reports that nearly 80,000 people in 2014 failed to vote in the governor’s race.

A recount can take place in 94 of 95 counties. In one county, Van Buren, a recount is not possible since a 2015 fire wiped out the county administration building where the election machines were stored.

The Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) worked with students and advocates in Tennessee to organize against the amendment, which was opposed by reproductive justice organizations, women’s health advocates, obstetricians and gynecologists, religious leaders, and every major Tennessee newspaper.

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