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Finding Safe Ways to Register and Vote in a Pandemic

Heather Duncan

The League of Women Voters eagerly awaited visitors at a community event outside C.O.N.N.E.C.T. Ministries in East Knoxville. With U.S. Census takers, other community groups, and a rhythm and blues band outside on a sunny Sunday afternoon, they hoped to register lots of voters. But in this pandemic season, few people showed.


COVID-19 has hampered efforts to register voters and drive turnout in the November election. It hasn’t helped that people are confused about the rules of voting by mail and concerned about its reliability. But voting advocates are brainstorming new ways to reach potential voters.


Tiffany Foster, president of Knoxville’s chapter of the League, said its volunteers usually register parents at elementary school PTO meetings. They set up tables at community events like football games, and sometimes even go door to door.


“But a lot of those events have been cancelled, and then we’re not going door to door because we want to make sure people feel safe,” Foster said. “And so we’re really having to be creative.”


The League has been using its web page and Facebook to share how people can register online. Its usual free candidate forums have shifted online, too. Some have attracted thousands of views -- more than they did in person.


Yvonne Webb, a voter registration coordinator who works with One Knox Legacy and Overcoming Believers Church in East Knoxville, has also turned to social media and is working on using text messages to push turnout.


But the pandemic has complicated the entire voting process, from registration to staffing the polls. 


Juggling COVID, crowds and paper ballots


These challenges are expected to coincide with unprecedented turnout. Knox County elections administrator Chris Davis says he’s planning for 200,000 voters. If that happens, turnout would beat the current record of 188,000 Knox County residents who voted in the 2008 presidential race.


There are about 285,000 Knox County residents who are registered to vote, Davis said. Two years ago, voter turnout was unprecedented (168,000) for a midterm, probably because of wide open races for governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. 

In the last presidential election, close to 185,000 people voted in Knox County. “I’ve seen interest rivaling, if not surpassing, what we saw four and eight years ago,” Davis said. 

Big turnout, although desirable, puts a lot of pressure on the system in a normal year. This year is already in a league by itself.


“Everything we’ve had to do has been geared around COVID-19,” Davis said. “It changes everything from what we take to the polling place, to how we’re going to vote, to how they’re going to stand in line, to the precautions and measures we take to keep both our voters and our workers safe.”


Many Tennessee counties are struggling to find enough poll workers, because many are retirees who feel vulnerable to coronavirus. Davis said Knox County is in good shape, though.


“We’ve had -- which is not surprising, we’re Tennessee Volunteers -- an overwhelming response, and we’re grateful for that,” he said. “I’m afraid there’s going to be people we can’t use, frankly, and so we have a long list of reserves.”


That’s vital because there are so many unusual elements to this election. It’s the first general election since Knox County returned to paper ballots, which are scanned at the polls. Paper isn’t exactly new technology, but no one at the election commission has been around long enough to have experience voting that way. It happened successfully during the August primary, but turnout is expected to be much higher in November.


“We’ll work with all of our partners to see that everything runs smooth, but…it’s 2020. So we’ll see what happens,” Davis said.


Absentee ballots


Another key change is the anticipated number of absentee ballots to be opened and counted on election day. Because of concerns about COVID-19, demand for mail-in voting has been at an all-time high.


In a typical November presidential election, Knox County gets between 5,000 and 6,000 absentee ballots, Davis said. At the end of September, 16,000 requests had already been received -- and there were still 4 weeks to request them. Davis’s team has been working nights, weekends and Sundays to get them mailed out.


“It’s going to be far and away a record,” Davis said. “It’s unprecedented for us.”


Webb and Foster say they are hearing some confusion and distrust about absentee voting, though.


Major changes to the operation of the U.S. Postal Service this summer have eroded faith in how rapidly it can deliver the ballots. And evolving court decisions in Tennessee have continued to change who is eligible for it. The absentee ballot for this election has had to be changed three times, Davis said.


Some changes relate to whether a person can vote by mail because of COVID infection risk. Currently, if a voter has an underlying health condition they believe makes them more susceptible to the virus -- or takes care of someone who does -- voting by mail is permitted. 

Another recent ruling means first-time voters, like students who are away at college, won’t be required to vote in person. This changed so late that the election commission had to revisit ballot requests it had already rejected, Davis said.


Davis expressed frustration at social media and cable news pundits who claim absentee voting isn’t reliable. He pointed out that mail-in ballots have been used for years and said Knox County is prepared. More than 50 Democratic and Republican volunteers are already lined up to open and count the absentee ballots on election day. Davis guessed they might have to process as many as 35,000.


Davis admitted that at first he was “a little scared” to encourage voting by mail. But then he saw how smoothly his staff handled it during the August election.


“So if somebody wants to vote absentee I am all for it,” he said. “Go either vote absentee, or vote early. Don’t wait until election day.” That way, illness, storms or other unexpected events don’t interfere.


He added that although voters have until Oct. 27 to request an absentee ballot, they need to do it now. The process isn’t quick.


“If you wait until anywhere near Oct. 27 you’re taking a big chance,” he said. “Because you have to request the ballot, we have to receive the request, process the request, mail the ballot, you get the ballot, you complete the ballot, you mail it back and (we have to) receive it no later than the close of business on election day.”


Davis says hundreds of people have already returned their absentee ballots, while thousands are still being mailed out.


The youth vote


The absentee voting changes may make it easier for some first-time voters to cast their ballots. But generally, it’s been harder to register young people this year. Foster said the League of Women Voters can’t visit high school and college campuses, as it usually does, because of COVID-19.


There are fewer students present on those campuses anyway, reducing opportunities. For example, in 2018 the University of Tennessee registered about 500 students by providing paper forms in first-year studies courses, said Katie Cahill, associate director of the university’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. Many of those classes aren’t offered in person at all this year.


Registration assistance has still been available in-person at the UT student center. A librarian has held weekly Zoom sessions to walk students through online voter registration, Cahill said. And professors were provided a lesson on voter registration with a quiz, which they could require in their courses.


But there’s no way to track how many students register as a result of these efforts.

“We had a group of students who painted The Rock on campus with the deadline for voter registration. That was real encouraging,” Cahill said. “But it is difficult to tell the amount of energy or interest in the student body because we don’t see very many of them any more in person.” The university also can’t host candidate debates and forums to build student interest.


That sense of personal involvement is important, because although 75 percent of students were registered to vote in the 2018 election, only about 30 percent did, Cahill said.  

There’s a lot of energy around this election, Cahill said. “It’s hard to know how that will translate in a global pandemic without the kind of community engagement in the traditional way we normally think about,” she said. “And so I think it will be a surprise what happens.”


Voter turnout


Like Davis, many voting advocates are emphasizing early voting. Social justice organization Black Coffee Justice is hoping to give out Black Lives Matter T-shirts at early voting locations to help drive turnout, said founder Constance Every.


Many in the Black community feel unusually motivated to vote because they oppose the re-election of President Donald Trump, Every said. Black Coffee Justice has continued to register voters at large gatherings to celebrate African-American history, like the Juneteenth and August 8 celebrations.


“People are definitely more geared up to say, ‘You know what? I’ll put my mask on. I’ll take my hand sanitizer, my gloves, whatever I need to do.’ But people do seem more adamant about hitting the polls compared to what we saw in August, just because things have not gotten better. They’ve gotten worse,” Every said. (As examples, she mentioned the first presidential debate and the lack of indictments against white police officers who killed Breonna Taylor, a black emergency room technician shot in her own bed.)


While many churches are still trying to figure out how to safely give voters a ride to the polls this year, Black Coffee Justice plans to seat people in every other seat of its big van, open the windows and roll out.


She and other community organizers are also brainstorming how to support voters if activist groups interfere with the polls. Concerns about that have been heightened since Trump told the white-nationalist Proud Boys to “stand by” during a September 29 debate with Democratic opponent Joe Biden.


“Let’s say the (Proud) Boys do show up at the polls and try to attack people, intimidate people, or whatever they do with their crazy selves when they come into spaces,” Every said. We’re thinking about that factor: How do we secure polls so people can comfortably go and vote without feeling harassed or intimidated.”


Webb said she hasn’t heard people being afraid to vote because of activists or COVID.  She helped register many voters at the Black Lives Matter rally in early summer, and also shows former felons learn how to get their voting rights back.


“There’s an increase in the amount of people that want to get their voting rights restored, because everybody feels like they want to vote in this election this year,” she said. 

Every said she hopes voters are energized not only by the presidential race but also state and Congressional contests.


“People are now realizing more than ever: This is your power card,” she said. “This is where you get to hire and fire, this is where you get to say who gets to stay and who gets to go.”


Note that the exception for COVID states that you have an underlying medical condition that puts you at higher risk if infected (or you are a caregiver of someone who does), but no doctor’s note or proof is required. You get to make your own call on this. 
First-time voters can now vote absentee but must provide a copy of a photo ID or a bill/check/government document that shows their residence.