NASHVILLE — With Tennesseans poised for early voting to start Wednesday in the Nov. 3 presidential election, at least 7,717 Hamilton County residents have already cast their votes through absentee mail-in ballots.
That's a 91.25% jump and nearly double the total 4,035 absentee mail-in votes cast in the county during the entire 2016 presidential election, according to figures obtained Monday from the Hamilton County Election Commission by the Times Free Press.
The absentee-voting surge in Hamilton and other counties comes amid COVID-19 concerns as well as a relaxation of some rules earlier this year in Tennessee's strict excuse-based absentee ballot request system following lawsuits against the state. Critics charged some requirements made no sense given the special vulnerability of several categories of people to the disease.
Tennessee's Supreme Court eventually ruled on behalf of the state after Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett agreed to new provisions to allow residents to vote absentee if they have underlying health conditions that leave them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
During a trip to Hamilton County on Tuesday, Hargett encouraged voters to take advantage of that if they feel they should.
"What I hope that comes out of all of this is that people in Tennessee understand they have a tremendous opportunity to either vote absentee, by mail, or to vote in person," the Republican said.
Hamilton County officials said Monday they have already processed 14,203 absentee voting requests from registered voters, sending the ballots by mail back to the voters. Those voters then mark their choices before returning the ballots by mail to the commission office.
Meanwhile, in-person voting opens Wednesday morning at polling stations across Tennessee's 95 counties.
Besides the top-of-the-ticket contest between Republican President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden, the election here includes a U.S. Senate race between Republican Bill Hagerty, a businessman and Trump's former ambassador to Japan, and Democrat Marquita Bradshaw, as well as a field of nine independent candidates. An environmental activist, Bradshaw is the first Black woman in Tennessee history to become a majority party nominee in a statewide contest. The race is for the seat held by retiring Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander.
Other contests include all nine U.S. congressional seats, 16 of the 33 state Senate seats and all 99 seats in the state House. Among local contests is the state Senate District 10 race, which includes marquee candidates Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, and Democrat Glenn Scruggs, a Black Chattanooga assistant chief of police, in a matchup that political observers across the state are watching. The district includes the city of Chattanooga and part of Bradley County.
Early voting has become an increasingly important part of state elections since Tennessee lawmakers approved it back in 1994.
During the 2016 presidential election in Tennessee, early voters accounted for 1.62 million, or 63.87%, of the total 2.45 million ballots cast. Combined with the 64,199 mail-in absentee ballots, that represented 66.4% of the total November vote that year.
Early voting in Tennessee runs from Oct. 14 through Oct. 29.
Hargett has stressed that during Tennessee's first coronavirus election process, Tennessee's in-person polling stations will be kept clean with polling officials wearing masks and other protective gear. Hargett also is encouraging voters to wear masks.
Voting machines will be frequently wiped and pens provided to voters to mark their ballots, officials said.
USPS: Absentee voters need to move fast
Tennessee has an Oct. 27 deadline to request a mail-in ballot, which is due by Election Day. But the U.S. Postal Service has twice warned that given an expected coronavirus-induced flood of mail-in ballots, officials can't guarantee quick turnarounds for Tennessee's multiple-step mail-in process. So the postal service and others are urging those voting absentee to act as quickly as possible at all points in the process to ensure completed ballots can be delivered to local election officials so they can be counted. Mail ballots arriving after Election Day won't be counted.
During the 2016 general election, another presidential year, just 64,199 mail-in ballots were cast among the total 2.45 million total votes cast statewide.
The Tennessean reported Tuesday that statewide at least 58,858 ballots have so far been returned by mail, with 79 of the 95 county election commissions responding to the newspaper's inquiries. Not included in the count are some larger counties, including Knox, the newspaper reported. Hargett's office has not asked them to report daily counts for the state.
As early voting began Monday in Georgia, voters surged to early polling sites, finding lengthy lines and hourslong waits in a number of metro areas.
But nearly 440,000 Georgians had already voted absentee-by-mail prior to the first early vote being cast there.
A May 26 online survey of 740 likely Tennessee voters, conducted on behalf of the nonpartisan group Secure Democracy, found a super majority — 67% — saying they support keeping polling locations open while also "giving all voters the option to vote absentee."
Staff writer Patrick Filbin contributed to this story.