NASHVILLE — Tuesday is the last day for Tennesseans to register to vote in the state's Aug. 6 elections, but one result is already clear: Hamilton Countians as of Monday set a modern-day record when it comes to requests for absentee ballots.
The August election features state and federal political primary contests as well as some municipal and county contests — including for Hamilton County school board — and will have a hotly contested Republican U.S. Senate primary to replace retiring Republican Lamar Alexander.
The surge in requests for the mail-in ballots comes after an early June ruling and subsequent decisions by a Davidson County judge. The case, which the state is appealing, allows some 4.1 million registered voters to cast ballots by mail as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
As of Monday, Hamilton County crossed the 4,200 mark for people requesting absentee ballots, according to county Election Administrator Kerry Steelman. The previous record was the November 2016 general election, in which 4,035 people in the county voted absentee.
Steelman said the Hamilton County Election Commission mails absentee ballots upon request via first class mail.
"However," he noted, "I strongly encourage all eligible voters opting to vote by mail to submit a request for [an] absentee ballot well in advance of the July 30 deadline."
The Tennessean reported over the weekend that voters statewide have requested nearly 57,000 absentee ballots in advance of the August primary, with some counties receiving more requests than any election in the last quarter century.
Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, State Election Coordinator Mark Goins and state Attorney General Herbert Slatery fought the lawsuit, filed by advocacy groups who cited COVID-19 health safety concerns in seeking to do away with many of Tennessee's previous restrictions on absentee balloting.
The decision is still under appeal.
Republicans have fought previous efforts in the General Assembly to expand mail-in voting, warning of potential voter fraud in relaxing restrictions. The state's previous absentee voting requirements included people who were going to be outside their home county during early voting or on Election Day, those aged 60 or older, people residing in a nursing home, physical disabilities, being ill or hospitalized and several other categories.
But as a result of Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle's ruling, that has been expanded to voters who have determined it is impossible or unreasonable to vote in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic or who are taking care of someone who is hospitalized, ill or disabled and determine it is unreasonable or impossible to vote in person due to the COVID-19 situation.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said he continues to have some concerns, citing the provision that the state can reject any absentee ballot arriving at the office of local election offices inside the seven-day window — thus not being counted.
In a May 29 letter, United States Postal Service General Counsel Thomas Marshall cautioned election officials across the country that the USPS turn-around time on first class mail is two to five days, with the turn-around time for most domestic marketing mail being three to 10 days.
"To account for delivery standards and to allow for contingencies (e.g., weather issues or unforeseen events), voters should mail their return ballots at least 1 week prior to the due date established by state law," Marshall wrote. "Similarly, for election materials (such as blank ballots) sent to voters, the Postal Service also recommends that state or local election officials use First-Class Mail and allow 1 week delivery to voters."
Marshall also stated voters "should be aware of the possibility that completed ballots mailed less than a week before that date, may not, in fact, arrive by the state's deadline. Similarly, if a state law allows a qualified voter to request an absentee ballot shortly before Election Day and requires the state or local election official to mail that ballot to the voter, voters should be made aware that the absentee ballot may not reach the voter before Election Day if requested less than a week before the election."
Yarbro said that is a concern given Tennessee allows people to request an absentee ballot up to seven days before election day and cast a vote. That may result in the ballot getting to them too late or the filled-out ballot arriving at the local election office after the election.
"If the reality of that doesn't match state law, then adjustments need to be made," said Yarbro, noting he would like Republican Gov. Bill Lee to call the GOP-led General Assembly back for a special session to address that and other concerns. "The number of absentee ballot requests has more than quadrupled because it's clear people want to vote without putting themselves at risk."
Yarbro said, "it's no coincidence we're at the same time seeing new daily records for COVID cases. It's pathetic that we can't just tell people to follow state law and trust the state is willing to make sure their votes count."
Hargett said in a statement that "state and local election officials around the state are working diligently to ensure voters have the information they need to safely cast their vote in these challenging times. Obviously word is getting out with the unprecedented number of requests we are receiving. For an elected official to unfairly criticize state and county election officials working tirelessly to implement a rapid and massive expansion of absentee voting is both discouraging and counterproductive."
Former Rep. Chris Clem, a Signal County Republican, attorney and member of the Hamilton County Election Commission, said in his view "there is room for more abuse in absentee ballots." Clem said he wasn't aware of any recent episodes. He recalled how some 20 years ago, one local candidate was getting "inside information" on who was requesting and getting absentee ballots and shifted his campaign efforts accordingly.
"There's certainly more more potential for abuse there that we need to be on the watch for," Clem said. "People need to be filling out their own ballots and no one needs to know" who they are so candidates and political parties won't be "harassing them" until their vote is officially designated as received by local election officials.
Clem said one concern voiced by county election commissioners "and this was bipartisan ... the law is set up where we can't start counting absentee ballots prior to the morning of the election."
That has him concerned that if there is "an overwhelming amount of absentee ballots we're not sure we can get them all counted on Election Day."
That's not likely to be an issue in the Aug. 6 election but could become one in the November election, Clem said.
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.