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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Shazman Ali, right, checks in to vote at the Brainerd Youth and Family Development Center on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Saturday marked the end of the early voting period.

NASHVILLE — Tennessee candidates are mounting their final charge toward Thursday's election, in which nearly 600,000 voters have already cast early or absentee votes in contests ranging from county school board to a bitterly contested U.S. Senate Republican primary.

Preliminary figures from Secretary of State Tre Hargett's office from 94 of 95 counties show 577,054 people had voted by the time the 15-day early voting period ended on Saturday.

The one county missing from the tally was Northeast Tennessee's Washington County, where another GOP battle royal is in full swing in the 1st Congressional District primary.

This year's ballot is dominated by the increasingly ugly Republican U.S. Senate primary brawl between Bill Hagerty, a former U.S. ambassador, and Nashville trauma surgeon Manny Sethi. It's a contest that's already been described by the national news outlet Politico as the nastiest in the entire country.

While Tennessee's 2020 early voting period had been running substantially higher in comparison to August 2012 and 2016 primary ballots, the unofficial numbers appear to have fallen short of eclipsing 2018's August election figure. For that election, 631,098 people voted early or by mail-in absentee ballot.

In Hamilton County, however, voters casting early and absentee ballots far surpassed 2018's August pre-election totals, according to state and Hamilton County Election Commission figures.

Hamilton County voters have cast 26,351 ballots so far this year, representing a nearly 22% jump over the 21,594 votes tallied two years earlier during early and absentee voting in 2018 Republican and Democratic primaries. Figures also include 2,525 mail-in or nursing home ballots cast prior to the start of early voting.

That represents a 579.17% increase locally in mail-in absentee ballots following a state judge's ruling in a coronavirus-related voting case in which groups filing suit charged Tennessee's strict absentee ballot laws were endangering people's lives.

Put another way: During August 2018 elections, only 893 Hamilton Countians cast mail-in ballots, according to secretary of state figures. This year, 6,065 did.

A total of 14,175 Republicans and 11,593 Democrats in Hamilton County had voted early or absentee as of Saturday.

Statewide, 353,619 Tennesseans voted in GOP primaries during early voting or absentee while 215,584 cast ballots in Democratic primaries.

"In-person voting has gone great," State Election Coordinator Mark Goins said. "County election commissions statewide have done an excellent job in executing a plan to ensure a smooth voting experience during COVID 19. Voters have responded by voting in strong numbers when compared with other August elections. The U.S. Senate race and open U.S. House seat in Congressional District 1 presumably is driving turnout."

In Republicans' U.S. Senate primary, Hagerty, a venture capitalist and former state economic and community development commissioner, faces Sethi, who has fought an anti-establishment battle with a slogan "Manny Against the Machine."

Both candidates and allied political action committees are waging scorched-earth campaigns.

Others in the GOP contest include Dr. George Flinn, a Memphis radiologist and radio station owner who is self funding his effort and unlike Hagerty or Sethi has been openly critical of Trump.

In Democrats' primary election, five candidates are running for their party's U.S. Senate nomination. Among them are James Mackler, a Nashville attorney and decorated Iraq war veteran, activist Marquita Bradshaw, a Memphis activist, and attorney Robin Kimbrough of Murfreesboro.

In Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District, neither incumbent U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, an Ooltewah Republican, nor Democratic challenger Meg Gorman of Chattanooga have primary opponents.

Nor do members of Hamilton County's legislative delegation in their respective primaries. But Thursday's vote is expected to set up a November face off in Senate District 10 between state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Democrat Glenn Scruggs, a Chattanooga Police Department assistant chief.

But there are some spirited election contests, including for Hamilton County school board, where Tom Decosimo and Marco Perez are squaring off for a District 2 seat.

Regarding the status of absentee voting in the November general election, the state had appealed the lower court's decision expanding it to the state Supreme Court. Just last week, however, lawyers for Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery unexpectedly told justices the state is prepared to offer absentee ballots to voters who have health conditions or live with someone at risk for COVID-19, even if the state's high court strikes down the lower court's expanded mail-in voting decision.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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