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VOL. 44 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 24, 2020

Will Tennesseans go to the polls or the mailbox?

Voting could look very different for Nov. 3 presidential election

By Kathy Carlson

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Will this year’s voters chat with neighbors and familiar poll workers before they press on computer screens to make their choices?

Or will they stand 6 feet apart and sanitize their hands before entering a room where people in masks, gloves and possibly gowns show them how to vote while touching as little as possible?

Or will they simply make their choices at home and drop them in the mail?

It all depends on what happens with the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 177 people and infected 7,700 in Tennessee alone through the morning report of April 23, numbers that would have been much larger if not for state and local mandates on sheltering at home and social distancing.

Across the country, more than 850,000 people have contracted coronavirus with 48,000 deaths reported through the same date.

In a sense, election officials must prepare for two different elections, one in which coronavirus isn’t a factor and one in which it is. Tennessee holds its primary for Congress, state legislators and other office holders Aug. 6. The presidential general election is Nov. 3.

Tennessee election administrators expect a surge in absentee voting by mail. Others, including some state officials, say voters will want to vote in person after having to stay home for so long.

All hope to learn from elections taking place between now and August, and don’t want a repeat of Wisconsin’s April primary, marred by poll workers who didn’t show up because of COVID-19 fears and polling places that were closed or experienced hourslong lines.

Tennessee’s state and county officials are preparing to hold elections under current law, which allows absentee balloting only under specific circumstances that include being age 60 or older, being ill or caring for someone who is ill, or being out of the county not only on Election Day but throughout the entire early voting period.

Officials are expecting that many more people 60 and older will vote by absentee ballot by mail this year, as they are at greater risk from COVID-19.

Thirty percent of registered voters in Tennessee are age 60 and older, says Mark Goins, state coordinator of elections. In the 2016 presidential election, however, about 2.5% of all Tennessee voters cast absentee-by-mail ballots. The percentage is usually about 2%.

During the seven-member Tennessee Election Commission’s meeting earlier this month, conducted by telephone conference call open to the public, a woman younger than 60 listening in asked about allowing voting by mail for everyone who wanted it, something called no-excuse absentee voting.

“I feel I would be afraid to go vote,” she said.

“That’s not the law of the state,” Goins said. Any changes in the law are “strictly up to the legislature.” The Tennessee General Assembly recessed in March because of the pandemic, with plans to return in June. Whether they can return then is unclear.

Voters wait in line in the gymnasium at Cleveland Park Community Center in East Nashville during March 3 balloting in a scene that would no longer be tolerated in the age of COVID-19 and social distancing. How voting will look for the Aug. 6 primary and the Nov. 3 general election largely depends on how well the virus has been contained and how many people use absentee ballots.

-- Photo By Mark Humphrey | Ap

State lawmakers responding to an email last week are hearing a variety of opinions from constituents on the upcoming elections. Some constituents were focusing on the pandemic itself and some specifically were asking about voting.

Several lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, say they wanted to try to make absentee voting by mail more available to Tennessee voters.

One such lawmaker is State Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, who says he pushed while the Legislature was in session an amendment to a bill on emergency voting measures that “would have allowed for absentee voting during times of a state of emergency for a pandemic. That amendment was defeated.”

He says he doesn’t know whether lawmakers will be able to return to the Capitol in June, which was the plan when the legislature recessed, or the opportunities for introducing legislation. But, he notes, he will “make every effort to expand the options for absentee voting for the remainder of 2020 if given the chance.”

The Tennessee Secretary of State’s office has responsibility over the state’s elections, with the nuts and bolts handled at the county level under state guidelines.

“First and foremost, we are concerned with the safety of our election officials and voters, and we want Tennesseans to be able to safely cast their vote,” says Julia Bruck, director of communications for the Secretary of State’s office. “We are working intensely with local election officials as we plan for multiple scenarios, including administering the upcoming elections under the present laws as well as our recommendations for any potential changes.

“Among the things we are planning for are the availability of the election officials necessary to operate polling sites and counting boards, the availability of the necessary equipment and supplies, and protocols that place a premium on the safety of everyone involved. These plans are evolving not only by the day but by the hour as we learn more about the epidemic and its effects.

“Tennesseans are in the habit of voting in person,” she adds. “Evidence of this is shown by how currently over 30% of Tennessee registered voters are 60 older and are eligible to vote absentee by-mail, however, less than 2% of all voters cast an absentee ballot in the typical election (2.5% during the 2016 presidential election.)

Voters in many other states are allowed to vote by mail for any reason, while Tennesseans can only do so under narrow circumstances unless legislators can reconvene and change the law.

-- Photo By Morry Gash | Ap

“In conversations with Washington (a vote-by-mail state), they have shared that unless you are currently voting 60% absentee, a conversion for all voters to vote-by-mail period needs to be about five years. (Washington Secretary of State) Kim Wyman shared that ‘trying to flip the switch by November would be a heavy lift and could have catastrophic results.’”

Dickerson, for his part, says he believes that “to carry out voting in August and then in November without making some adjustments is ill-advised.” He says he is concerned about recruiting enough poll workers, given that so many are retirees and in a high-risk age group for the virus.

“By decreasing the number of voters who vote in-person, I think it will protect our poll workers and encourage more people to fill this role.”

Further, he says he doesn’t think it’s acceptable for people who do not currently qualify for absentee ballots to face the choice of voting in person, where they feel they risk their health, or not voting at all.

“While it might be difficult to quickly pivot to a system where a large number of Tennesseans chose to vote absentee, and there would be a cost, I have no doubt that Secretary (of State Tre) Hargett could do so and I believe the cost is justified,” Dickerson says.

State Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, say voters are telling her “we need leadership urgently to ensure that every person can participate equally in the 2020 elections – without exposing themselves to COVID-19.

“Gov. Bill Lee made it crystal clear this week when he said social distancing would be a ‘way of life for Tennesseans going forward.’’’

In a democracy, elections are a way of life too. That means state election officials must make some changes quickly to keep voters safe and maintain access to the ballot box.

Gilmore suggests the following possible changes to protect voters’ health and keep the elections safe:

• Expand early voting to prevent lines and crowded polling places where people could be exposed to the virus

• Expand hours of voting

• Allowing voters to cast their ballot at any precinct

• Allowing anyone (to) request an absentee ballot to vote by mail

Some legislators say their constituents are more concerned with the pandemic than changes to voting policies.

“I’m not hearing anything about the elections,” Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, says. “Everything is about the virus and the now. I believe it will be a campaign season like we’ve never seen before. Probably no gatherings for fundraisers and no knocking on doors. All this gives the incumbent a great advantage.”

Rep. Dwayne Thompson, D-Memphis, says he has heard little from his constituents about the elections, adding they were “focused upon the pandemic and how it’s affected their lives.”

“As far as my campaign, I’ve always done a lot of door-to-door campaigning. We are constantly evaluating that to see if and how that can be done this year.

“There are needs for a lot of legislation later this year, but I am not sure what, if anything, will be done. The pandemic has shown even more the need to expand Medicaid in Tennessee, to expand coverage, as we have advocated to the Governor often. Also, I’m sure that some legislation to deal with the 20-21 school year is needed after having to cut the current year short.”

“The only issue regarding the August Primary and November General Elections that I’ve heard about is on-request mail-in ballots,” says Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville. He has received “perhaps half a dozen form letters.

“I actually would support an on-request (also called a no-excuse-required mail in ballot) if – and only if – the state Election Commission can develop a process to avoid fraud. I do not want a North Carolina November 2018 situation with fraudulent counted ballots. I have more concerns with mail-in ballots than with voting machines.”

The 2018 North Carolina case involved Republican operatives illegally collecting mail-in ballots and failing to turn them in to be counted. Several individuals were indicted, and the results of the 9th Congressional District race were overturned.

Other representatives say their constituents are asking about the upcoming elections.

“I’m hearing from many who are very concerned about vulnerable relatives with preexisting conditions who will be put at risk if they have to vote in person,” says Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville. “Universal absentee voting is the best way to ensure we have a high turnout at the polls and guarantee the safety of all Tennesseans.”

Nashville election officials are preparing for the possibility that half of the votes in the Aug. 6 primary and Nov. 3 general election will be cast with mail-in absentee ballots, assuming coronavirus-prevention efforts such as social distancing remain in effect.

“We’re anticipating a huge influx of absentee ballots,” Jeff Roberts, Davidson County administrator of elections, told Nashville’s five election commissioners at a called telephone meeting earlier this month. Roberts said his office anticipates that more than 120,000 absentee-by-mail ballots will be cast.

That’s more than half of the 249,000-plus votes cast in Davidson County in the 2016 presidential election. In that election, 6,000 absentee-by-mail votes were cast, Roberts said.

“We’re a little bit nervous, but we’re going to do whatever it takes” to hold elections, he said in the meeting.

Since then, Metro Nashville election officials have developed a timeline to follow to get ready for the August and November elections.

Roberts said in a later phone-conference the state will be providing poll workers with masks and gloves. State officials are also working on obtaining face shields, gowns and hand sanitizer as further protection. When one commissioner asked why gowns, Roberts said gowns would help protect the poll workers’ clothing so the virus doesn’t come home with them at the end of the day.

Other changes for the upcoming elections are possible if coronavirus remains an issue, Roberts said:

Davidson County’s sample ballot will include an application for an absentee ballot. The application is also available through a link on the Metro Election Commission website. Absentee ballots for all counties

Voters will be encouraged to use hand sanitizer when entering and leaving the polling place.

Voters can use plastic coffee-stir sticks to punch in their choices on computer screens to avoid touching the screens.

If there’s a significant drop in the number of poll workers on Election Day, Nashville can use its traditional 11 early voting sites as polling places. Those 11 sites are Howard Office Building, Belle Meade City Hall, Bellevue Library, Bordeaux Library, Casa Azafran Community Center, Edmondson Pike Library, Goodlettsville Community Center, Green Hills Library, Hermitage Library, Madison Library and Southeast Library.

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