The Knox County Election Commission has received more than 18,000 absentee ballot requests for the November presidential election, three times the number of absentee voters during the 2016 presidential election.
"We're not only in record territory, we're in historic territory," Knox County elections administrator Chris Davis said.
Despite a slew of lawsuits seeking to expand absentee voting, Tennessee is one of just five states that requires an excuse beyond COVID-19 to vote by mail in November. Those with underlying conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID, or family members with these conditions, are the only voters newly eligible for absentee ballots.
Since most voters don’t qualify to vote by mail, the rise in absentee ballot requests may partially be a reflection of the larger number of voters this year. A record 4.4 million Tennesseans are registered to vote in the upcoming election — a more than 300,000 person increase from the 2016 presidential election, according to records from Secretary of State Tre Hargett's office.
As absentee ballot request forms spike, turnaround time can take up to three weeks, Davis said. Voters began submitting ballot requests in early August, and the election commission began sending ballots September 21. Davis encouraged anyone who has waited more than three weeks for their ballot to call their local election commission. He added that slowed absentee ballot turnaround times have started to speed up in recent days.
"We have a system in place now, where normally we'd have four to five people working on this, we have about 18 to 20 people [currently]," Davis said.
Federal coronavirus relief money is covering the cost of the additional staff to process the surge of absentee ballots. More than $7.9 million in federal CARES Act funding was granted to Tennessee for local election commissions.
Election Administrator: "If you're going to request one, get it in now"
The last day to request an absentee ballot for November’s election is October 27, but election commissioners warn that anyone planning to vote by mail should request a ballot now to allow time for processing the request and mailing the ballot. Only ballots received by the election commission before the close of polls on Election Day will be counted.
"Frankly, even though the law allows you to request one all the way up through October 27th, you wait that long and you're taking a lot of chances," Davis said.
Around 200 absentee ballots weren't counted in the August primary because they were received after the close of polls. Absentee ballots must be returned by mail. Ballots returned in person, by email or by fax won't be counted. Voters can check the status of their absentee ballot on the Secretary of State's website.
Early voting begins Wednesday
For those who do not qualify for an absentee ballot or prefer voting in person, early voting begins Wednesday, October 14, and continues through October 29.
Knox County's early voting locations are open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m until October 24. Between October 26 and 29, polls will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. A photo ID is required to vote.
KNOX COUNTY EARLY VOTING LOCATIONS
- Carter Senior Center (new this election): 9040 Asheville Highway
- City-County Building, Small Assembly Room: 400 Main St. *
- Downtown West: 1645 Downtown W. Blvd., Unit 40 *
- Farragut Town Hall: 11408 Municipal Center Drive
- Halls Recreation Center: 6933 Recreation Lane
- Howard H. Baker Jr. Center: 1640 Cumberland Ave * (October 26 - 29 only)
- Karns Senior Center: 8042 Oak Ridge Highway
- Knoxville Expo Center: 5441 Clinton Highway *
- Love Kitchen: 2418 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. *
- Meridian Baptist Church: 6513 Chapman Highway *
- New Harvest Park: 4775 New Harvest Lane *
*accessible by KAT bus fare-free