This story was updated at 6:29 p.m. on Monday, July 20, 2020, with more information.
NASHVILLE — Early voting resumed Monday in Tennessee's Aug. 6 primary elections after at least 90,540 people cast early votes or by mail-in absentee ballot last Friday and Saturday, according to to Secretary of State Tre Hargett's office.
The August ballot features an increasingly bitter Republican U.S. Senate battle between former U.S. Ambassador Bill Hagerty and Nashville trauma surgeon Manny Sethi and 13 other GOP candidates as well as a Senate Democratic primary with, so far, much less drama and funding.
Voting statewide over the first two days was up 27,863 votes or 44.68% over the 2018 August ballot, which included a fiercely contested GOP primary for Tennessee governor and U.S. Senate party primaries where the main candidates faced little opposition.
Some 4,700 people in Hamilton County voted early or by absentee ballot during the first two days of 2020 early voting, according to figures posted on the Division of Elections website. That's an 82.24% jump over 2018's first two day totals of 2,579.
State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said he believes there's a simple reason fueling the rush to the polls not only in Hamilton County but other parts of the state.
"It's the COVID," said Gardenhire, referring to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic which as of Monday has resulted in 847 deaths, almost 80,000 infections and left an additional 31 people hospitalized, bringing the total to 3,712, state Health Department figures show.
Gardenhire said in his view the pandemic has "motivated people to go out and vote while they can." In fact, the senator said, he recently sent out a direct-mail piece to voters in his Senate district telling them they can vote absentee by mail-in ballots.
Ruling in a case brought to open up Tennessee's mail-in voting because of the virus, a state judge greatly expanded absentee balloting here. Tennessee Republican Attorney General Herbert Slatery is appealing the ruling.
In Bradley County, 1,210 voted early or by absentee ballot during the first two days of 2020 early voting, an 8.42% increase over the first two days total of 1,116 during 2018 early voting.
Figures show 2,271 Hamilton County residents voted in the Republican primary, which features the heated GOP U.S. Senate primary. But 2,189 county residents cast ballots in the Democratic primary. The ballot also includes Republican and Democratic primary contests for U.S. House, state House and state Senate and a smattering of local contests including local school boards not on the ballot two years ago.
In Bradley, 932 people voted last week in Republican primaries with 244 voting in Democratic primaries.
Five counties — Grundy, Blount, Cheatham, Lauderdale and Madison counties — initially reported only results of Friday's voting to Tennessee Election Coordinator Mark Goins' office. But vote tallies from those counties continued to trickle in on Monday.
Statewide, 48,380 voters cast ballots in Republican primaries, while 38,879 voted in Democratic primaries, according to the state.
In-person early voting continues through Aug. 1.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0484. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.