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Roundup: Vote by Mail Applications Open Amidst COVID-19 Uncertainty; GSMNP Draws Crowds

Ken Thomas / Public domain

Absentee ballot applications open, as groups sue for loosened vote by mail restrictions

Local Tennessee election commissions are now accepting applications for absentee ballots for the August 6 election. In Knox County, the ballot will include primary candidates for a U.S. Senate seat, U.S. House of Representatives seat, Tennessee Senate seat, seven Tennessee House of Representatives seats and four school board seats.

Currently, only people who meet specific requirements qualify for absentee voting. This includes voters in the military, voters over the age of 60, and voters with physical disabilities and their caretakers. But a group of Tennessee civil rights organizations filed a lawsuit on May 1 seeking to ease vote by mail restrictions during the novel coronavirus pandemic. The complaint reads, “For most voters, absentee voting — if available as an option — is a safe, socially-distanced method of exercising their fundamental right.”

Spokesperson for Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office, Julia Bruck, said in a statement about the lawsuit, "Political activists across the country are filing these types of suits in order to change election laws through the courts, and I have great confidence in the ability of the Office of the Attorney General to represent the citizens of Tennessee."

The CDC has recommended that election officials encourage mail-in voting to minimize direct contact. Tennessee is one of 18 states that restricts who can receive an absentee ballot. The last day to register to vote is July 7, early voting starts July 17.

This story was updated on May 12. 

GSMNP reopened Saturday

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park reopened Saturday. It had been closed since March 24 to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, many popular trails, visitor centers and campgrounds remain closed. A full list is available on Twitter or on the park’s website.

A park spokesperson told multiple news outlets there were significant traffic blockages heading into the park this weekend, and said many people weren't following guidelines to avoid crowded areas.

School board to vote Wednesday on $7 million proposal to lease laptops to every student

The Knox County School Board will vote Wednesday on a plan to lease laptop computers to every student and staff member beginning this fall. The plan proposes leasing 60,000 Chromebooks for students and 1,000 Windows or Apple laptops for teachers.

Most of the $7 million-dollar cost would be covered through the recent federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Knox County Schools anticipates receiving $12.8 million in federal aid. The future costs of the plan would be ongoing and built into schools’ annual budgets. KCS Superintendent Bob Thomas said the laptops would be used to enhance in-person learning and for distance learning if schools must close again due to the coronavirus pandemic.

WUOT’s Chrissy Keuper contributed to this report