Voting During a Pandemic: Changes to Absentee Voting Policy in Tennessee

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed election administration in Tennessee and across the country.

This spring, ThinkTennessee promoted three promising solutions for voting during a pandemic: 1.) expand access to absentee ballots, 2.) keep voters informed with a robust public awareness campaign and 3.) make sure those who choose to vote in person can do so safely. Many have been incorporated, such as social distancing protocols and safety precautions like single-use pens at polling locations.

During the 2020 legislative session, Tennessee legislators opted not to expand absentee ballot eligibility to all voters due to the pandemic. However, over the summer a series of court rulings resulted in changes to absentee eligibility for the August primary and November general election. A record number of Tennesseans chose to use this option and cast absentee ballots in August, with county election officials rising to the challenge.

How has Covid-19 impacted election administration?

Learn more by watching our recent webinar, reviewing our updated issue brief, or seeing below for the latest.

The Latest

Recent changes make more Tennessee voters eligible to vote absentee:

  • Voters and caretakers of those with underlying health conditions may vote absentee. (A physician’s statement is not required.)

  • First-time voters who registered online or by mail, and who are otherwise eligible, may vote absentee.

    Tennessee Supreme Court ruling in Earle J. Fisher, et al. v. Tre Hargett, et al., and Benjamin Lay, et al. v. Mark Goins, et al. clarifies underlying health conditions qualify as an illness excuse to vote absentee.

    In August, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned an earlier ruling from the Davidson County Chancery Court that expanded absentee voting access to any registered voter. During oral arguments at the state Supreme Court, the State clarified that voters or caretakers of those with underlying health or medical conditions may vote absentee using the existing “illness” excuse in November.

    U.S. District Court ruling in Memphis A. Phillip Randolph Institute, et al., v. Tre Hargett, et al. blocks restriction on first-time voters voting by absentee.

    In September, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee issued an injunction blocking a law that prevents first-time voters from voting absentee this November. Previously, if a voter registered to vote by mail or online, i.e., not in person, they were not eligible to vote absentee until having first voted in person or appearing at their county election commission.

    Will Anything Change Before November?

    With the General Assembly out of session and November quickly approaching, additional policy revision is not likely.

    However, a change could come from one of three state or court actions:

    • Special Session of the General Assembly. The Governor could call the legislature back to review specific portions of the state’s election law.

    • Executive Order. The Governor could extend the state of emergency and issue an Executive Order suspending election laws prescribing the current orders, rules or regulations.

    • Additional Court Rulings. The Davidson County Chancery Court case regarding expanded access to absentee ballots for all registered voters is still active, and the State could appeal the U.S. District Court ruling allowing first-time voters who are otherwise eligible to vote by absentee.

    Executive and legislative action is not expected. However, additional court rulings could affect absentee guidelines again before November.

    Other State Action In Response to Covid-19

    Most states allow every voter to cast an absentee ballot in every election. The rest typically require voters to list a qualifying “excuse” to get an absentee ballot.

    Nearly all states have made adjustments to traditional election policy as a result of Covid-19.

    Over half (29) of all states allow every voter to vote absentee in every election. 5 states mail all registered voters ballots, which they can return to election officials by mail or at secure drop-off locations.

    Just 16 states, including Tennessee, typically require voters to list a qualifying “excuse” to vote absentee.

      • ThinkTN Webinar Holding Elections During a Pandemic, featuring Dr. Alex Jahangir, Chair of Nashville’s Coronavirus Task Force, Mandela Barnes, Lt. Governor of Wisconsin and Trey Grayson, former Secretary of State for Kentucky.