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Tuesday Deadline to Register to Vote on August 6, Three More Weeks to Request Absentee Ballots

TN Secretary of State

Tuesday is the deadline to register to vote in the August 6 election, which includes state legislator primary races and county general elections. This election will mark the first time in Tennessee that almost all voters are eligible to vote by mail.

In early June, a Davidson County judge expanded absentee voting to all registered voters in Tennessee during “pandemic circumstances,” according to the ruling. Three weeks from the deadline to request an absentee ballot, some East Tennessee counties have needed to pull in extra staff to handle the increased number of absentee ballot requests. 

Cumberland County has received 907 absentee ballot requests, compared to just 160 requests for this election 4 years ago and brought on two extra staff members to manage the uptick. Knox County has received over 6,500 absentee ballot requests thus far and has brought on in more workers and been using more equipment than normal, according to the commissioner Chris Davis.

But not all election commissioners attribute the spike in requests to the new ruling. In Anderson County, which includes Oak Ridge and Clinton, just 20 of the 710 people who have applied for absentee ballots are newly eligible. According to election commissioner Mark Stephens, the vast majority of absentee ballot requests are from those over the age of 60 – a population that was already eligible for absentee voting.

Jefferson County election commissioner Charles Gibson said he’s seen a similar trend as in Anderson County: an uptick in absentee ballot requests, but primarily from those that were already eligible to vote by mail. He attributed the recent uptick to increased media attention on absentee voting.

Jefferson County has seen a 300% increase in requests for ballots by mail for the upcoming election, as compared to the last August election during a presidential cycle in 2016. Gibson noted that this is an election with very low turnout historically; the August 2016 election saw the lowest voter turnout in the county’s history. He said the uptick has been manageable thus far for the August election, but he’s trying to prepare for an unpredictable presidential election on  November 3.

“I’ve brought in a couple of people to get training to be able to handle the November election,” Gibson said. “Not knowing where the virus is going, we see what’s happening and that’s a very scary thing”

Some East Tennessee counties reported no uptick in absentee ballot requests thus far, including Claiborne County and Hancock County. The deadline to submit a request to vote by mail in the August election is July 30th. Applications are available through the Secretary of State’s office and can be submitted to local election commission offices via mail or email. 

The court’s ruling to expand absentee voting did not specifically address a requirement that first-time voters cast their ballots in person, so Tennessee officials have said first-time voters remain ineligible to vote by mail. The matter is still being debated in court, following a lawsuit brought by The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law seeking to block the in-person requirement for first-time voters.  

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