Court: Voting by mail for all Tennesseans

J. H. Osborne • Jun 13, 2020 at 9:30 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — COVID-19 got you concerned about safely casting your ballot in upcoming elections? Thanks to a court ruling last week, registered Tennessee voters who do not wish to vote in person due to the COVID-19 situation are eligible to request an absentee ballot by mail.

For those who don’t request an absentee ballot by mail, the option will remain vote in person during early voting or on Election Day.

And Sullivan County Administrator of Elections Jason Booher told the Times News last week that his office will provide safeguards at the polls for voters and election workers.

“The Sullivan County Election Commission is dedicated to upholding our mission of conducting accurate, fair and honest elections in a manner that exceeds expectations and is in compliance with both federal and state law,” Booher said. “We have and will continue to work diligently to offer in-person voting with the proper safeguards for both our election officials and voters. This includes offering hand sanitizer for all voters, routine cleaning of the polling place and equipment, and distancing markers. In addition, election officials will be screened and provided face masks, face shields and gloves.”

Booher noted the court ruling allowing absentee by mail voting by any registered voter has been appealed by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III.

According to The Associated Press, the Republican-led Legislature and GOP Gov. Bill Lee had dismissed the idea of offering absentee ballots to all voters, with lawmakers voting against Democratic expansion proposals more than once. Instead, state election officials recommended preparations as though all 1.4 million registered voters 60 and older — about 1 of every 3 registered voters — will cast mail-in ballots in the August primary.

The deadline for requesting an absentee by mail ballot for the Aug. 6 election (county general and party primaries) is July 30. Voters must pick whether they want to vote in the Democratic Party primary of the Republican Party primary, but all may choose to participate in the county general election.

Tennessee law already allows voters to cast their ballots absentee by mail for a variety of reasons, from simply being 60 or older, to being sick or out of town during the election.

From the Tennessee Secretary of State’s website:

Am I eligible to vote absentee by-mail?

You can vote absentee by mail if you fall under one of the following categories:

• You will be outside the county where you are registered during the early voting period and all day on Election Day.

• You or your spouse are a full-time student in an accredited college or university outside the county where you are registered.

• You are on the permanent absentee list.

• You reside in a nursing home, assisted living facility or home for the aged outside your county of residence.

• You will be unable to vote in person due to jury duty.

• You are 60 years of age or older.

• You have a physical disability and an inaccessible polling place.

• You are hospitalized, ill or physically disabled and because of such condition, cannot vote in person.

• You are the caretaker of a person who is hospitalized, ill or disabled.

• You have determined it is impossible or unreasonable to vote in person at a polling place due to the COVID-19 situation, and therefore qualify as hospitalized, ill or disabled and unable to appear at your polling place.

• You are a candidate for office in the election.

• You serve as an Election Day official or as a member or employee of the election commission.

• You are observing a religious holiday that prevents you from voting in person during the early voting period and on Election Day.

• You or your spouse possess a valid commercial drivers license (CDL) or Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) card and you will be working outside the state or county of registration during the open hours of early voting and Election Day and have no specific out-of-county or out-of-state address to which mail may be sent or received during such time.

• You are a member of the military or are an overseas citizen.

How can I request an absentee by-mail ballot?

• You must submit a written request containing the information below to your local county election commission office by the seventh day before Election Day. You can use an absentee ballot request form to make sure all required information is provided. (Sullivan County voters seeking an absentee by mail ballot for the Aug. 6 Election Day may print a ballot request form at www.scelect.org).

• You can submit your written request for an absentee ballot by mail, fax or e-mail. If emailing your request, be sure the attached document contains the name of the registered voter, address of the voter’s residence, voter’s social security number, voter’s date of birth, address to mail the ballot, voter’s signature, election in which the voter wishes to participate (including the political party primary in which the voter wishes to vote), and reason the voter wishes to vote absentee.

• Requests for the November presidential election cannot be received until Aug. 5.

The Times News, through email, asked the Tennessee Division of Elections and the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office two questions on Thursday: 1) Since the court ruling last week that put this option in place, has there been an increase in the number of voters requesting an absentee by mail ballot? If so, based on what the voters are listing as their reason for requesting an absentee by mail ballot, is any increase attributable to voter concerns over COVID-19?; 2) Are absentee ballots being sent out as requests come in? Or are requests that are due to COVID-19 being held for processing until the state's appeal is heard and rule upon?

On Friday, the Times News received a response from Julia Bruck, director of communications for the office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett.

For answers to the first question, Bruck directed the Times News to seek the information from local county election commissions.

In answer to the second question, Bruck wrote “County Election Commissions have been instructed to send an absentee ballot application to any eligible voter who requests one, to process absentee ballot applications they receive, and to send out absentee ballots to anyone who is eligible. In some counties, absentee ballots have not been sent to any voter either because the county does not yet have the ballots back from the printer or because the ballot is still being finalized. However, even in those counties, the Election Commissions are still processing applications so that they can send out the ballots as soon as they are ready.”


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