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Tennessee and local election officials are recruiting poll workers, bracing for record-setting absentee voting and overhauling processes to keep people apart and protected from the coronavirus, but there is one thing they can't do as they prepare for early voting to begin Friday in Hamilton County.

"We can't require people to wear a face covering to the polls, but we can ask, we can encourage," said Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett in a call hosted this week by the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce.

The Aug. 6 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 complexity of planning for an election during a pandemic has been considerable, Hargett said.

"It's been a very challenging time for us, but that doesn't make us unique here in Tennessee," he said.

In Hamilton County, the number of requests for absentee ballots was close to 5,000 this week, with two weeks left to request them by the July 30 deadline.

"In a typical August election, we receive 1,800 applications for absentee ballots," said Kerry Steelman, administrator of elections for Hamilton County.

The demand for so many absentee ballots is more typical of the level he sees for November presidential elections, Steelman said. The previous absentee voting record was the November 2016 general election, when 4,035 people in the county voted absentee.

(READ MORE: Tennessee counties told to use new mail voting info, per court order.)

In addition to driving demand for absentee ballots, the pandemic has made it a challenge to recruit poll workers. The average age of a poll worker in Hamilton County is 70, Steelman said.

"Clearly, poll workers are in that age range that tend to be the most susceptible to this particular virus," he said. "There has been some hesitancy by some people."

In upcoming elections, poll workers will wear personal protective equipment and maintain social distance. Every step in the process has been overhauled to minimize contact, Steelman said.

"Anything a voter touches will only be touched once," he said.

An additional two workers per polling location will have specific accountability for ensuring compliance with COVID-19 precautions, both inside and outside the location, Steelman said.

The Hamilton County Election Commission recruits about 900 poll workers for early voting and Election Day duties, and is still working to recruit the people needed to work the polls, Steelman said.

"We are still a few poll workers short of our typical needs, but we do have the names of individuals who have expressed interest in working, and we are now trying to recruit additional workers from those names."

Tennessee needs more poll workers across the state, and has advertised heavily on social media to attract people who may not have worked the polls before, Hargett said.

"We began very aggressively working on a plan to recruit more poll workers to replace anybody who might not work, but also knowing we're going to see a larger number of absentee ballots," Hargett said. "We need more people to participate in the counting of the absentee ballots."

The absentee ballots can't be opened until Aug. 6, and that means a limited time to count a record number of them, Hargett said.

"We can't open those ballots until the polls open on Election Day," he said. "It's going to take time to count those."

Dates to know:

For the Aug. 6, 2020, state/federal primary and state/county general election:

Friday, July 17- Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020: Early voting

Thursday, July 30, 2020: Absentee ballot request deadline

Where to go:

Brainerd Rec Center

1010 North Moore Road

Monday-Friday

10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Saturday

10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Collegedale City Hall

4910 Swinyar Drive

Monday-Friday

10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Saturday

10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Election Commission

700 River Terminal Road

Monday-Friday

8 a.m. – 7 p.m.

Saturday

10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Hixson Community Center

5401 School Drive

Monday-Friday

10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Saturday

10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

For the Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, state/federal general election:

Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020: First day to request an absentee ballot

Monday, Oct. 5, 2020: Voter registration deadline

Wednesday, Oct. 14 – Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020: Early voting

Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020: Absentee ballot request deadline

For more information, visit the Hamilton County Election Commission website at elect.hamiltontn.gov

Mark Goins, Tennessee coordinator of elections, said storing the additional envelopes was tricky. The state ordered 12 million envelopes — which comes to 144 pallets — and had to rent out a storage facility to hold them, he said.

Election officials have worked to develop processes that will make in-person voting as safe and orderly as possible and to prepare for unusually heavy absentee voting, Hargett said.

"There are going to be bumps," he said. "One of the most dangerous things that creates chaos is uncertainty. We're doing everything we can to create certainty."

Early voting will be a critical element of conducting a safe election, he added.

"If we spread those voters out over the maximum time possible, that helps us achieve greater social distancing," he said.

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.

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