Voting in a “normal” election can be confusing. Add to that a pandemic and recent battles over voting rights, and you have the fall of 2020.
WPLN News and Curious Nashville have been staying on top of the latest developments in Tennessee’s election laws and answering your questions about voting. Here is what you need to know about voter registration, absentee balloting and much more.
Got a question? Ask it here.
Who can vote in Tennessee?
Any U.S. citizen who is 18 on or before Nov. 3 can vote in the upcoming election — provided they’re a resident of Tennessee.
The residency rules can be complicated, but in general, it’s a person who has moved to Tennessee and intends to stay. That can include people experiencing homelessness, but it doesn’t necessarily include students. They should vote in their place of permanent residence.
People convicted of a felony are often not able to vote in Tennessee. That group includes approximately one in 12 adults of voting age in the state, the fourth-highest rate in the nation.
To vote, all Tennesseans must register at least 30 days in advance. The deadline for the November election is Oct. 5.
How do I register?
You can register online through the Tennessee Secretary of State’s website. But to do so, you need to have a Tennessee driver’s license or other state identification.
Otherwise, you can fill out a paper form and mail it to your local election commission.
If you move or change your name, you can update your information through the voter registration website. And if you’re unsure whether you’re registered, you can check by visiting govotetn.org. The state periodically removes voters who haven’t cast ballots in a while, so it’s a good idea to check.
Can I register at the polls and vote immediately?
No, Tennessee does not allow same-day registration. You have to register by Oct. 5.
Do I have to declare a party affiliation?
No, Tennessee does not register voters by party. Voters choose when they go to the polls whether they want a Republican or Democratic ballot.
Great! I’m registered. When can I vote?
Tennessee offers early voting from Oct. 14 to Oct. 29. Election Day is Nov. 3. Check with your county election commission for locations and hours to vote.
Voting Amid COVID-19
I’m registered and I want to vote by mail. What are my options?
You have to request an absentee ballot. Any registered voter 60 or over can is allowed to vote absentee. Other voters have to give a reason.
Tennessee doesn’t allow many excuses. In a typical year, they boil down to a voter being out of their home county for the entirety of the voting period, or the voter having a health condition that prevents them from voting in person.
Because of the pandemic, the courts have ruled that anyone who has a condition that makes them susceptible to contracting or developing complications from COVID-19 can vote absentee for this fall’s election, as can anyone who is a caregiver to a vulnerable person.
Wait, what conditions does that include? Do I qualify to vote absentee?
That’s a little murky. The state’s election coordinator says it’s up to every individual to determine whether they think they qualify. The state Attorney General’s Office says no one will be prosecuted for asking for a ballot and not having a qualifying condition.
Then, how do I get an absentee ballot?
You can find the request form on the Secretary of State’s website, or you can contact your county election commission. The deadline is Oct. 27, which means your application must be received by then. So, you’ll want to put it in the mail several days in advance.
And, keep in mind, that deadline is only a week before the election. The Postal Service is recommending voters give themselves at least 15 days to request and return an absentee ballot.
Your ballot must be received before the close of polls on Nov. 3. In Middle Tennessee, that’s 7 p.m. (It’s 8 p.m. in the Eastern time zone.)
If it arrives a day or two later, you’re out of luck. Your vote won’t count.
The upshot is, don’t want to wait until the last minute. If you want to vote absentee, you should get moving on it now.
Can I drop it off at my county election commission?
No, you can’t. A peculiarity of Tennessee law is absentee ballots must be returned by mail. That can be through the Postal Service or through a private carrier, like FedEx or UPS.
You can track your absentee ballot as it moves through the system here.
What are some of the most common mistakes made with absentee voting?
Ballots arriving late. As we said above, Tennessee law says explicitly that absentee ballots must arrive by the close of the polls on Election Day.
Absentee ballots can also be rejected for not having a signature or if the signature doesn’t match what’s on file. But that’s been rare in Tennessee. A federal judge recently noted that only 0.03% of absentee ballots have been rejected over the signature requirement in the past two elections.
And if your absentee ballot is rejected, the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office says voters are supposed to be notified by their local election commission so they can “cure” their mistake.
OK, I thought I wanted to vote absentee, but now I think I’d rather vote in person. What should I do?
If you’ve already requested an absentee ballot, the state coordinator of election says you should follow through and vote by mail.
Your election commission marked you down as having voted when it sent you an absentee ballot, even if you haven’t mailed it back yet. So if you show up at the polls asking to vote, it’s going to create a hassle for you and election workers.
To ensure you’re not voting twice, election workers will give you a provisional ballot — not a regular one. That’s going to mean extra paperwork for you, and your vote won’t be counted until officials have researched your situation and determined you didn’t vote absentee. By that point, the election will probably have been decided.
And more paperwork at the polls means other voters have to wait longer in line.
So, if you’ve requested an absentee ballot, you’re best off returning it.
I’d rather vote in person. What COVID prevention measures are being taken?
Poll workers are required to wear face masks or shields, and they have been given access to gowns and gloves. Every polling place should have hand sanitizer and signage indicating 6-foot social distancing.
Voters are to be given single-use pens to sign their ballot applications, and an object like a coffee stirrer or popsicle stick to make their selections on voting machines. Election officials are supposed to wipe down machines after each use.
Voters are strongly encouraged to wear masks at the polls.
The extra precautions could make voting slower, so election officials are encouraging Tennesseans to take advantage of the early voting period, when crowds tend to smaller. In previous elections, the majority of votes have been cast during early voting.
What do I need to vote?
When you go to vote, you’ll need to show a photo ID issued by the state of Tennessee, such as a driver’s license or gun permit, or by the federal government, such as passport or military ID. Library cards or other IDs issued by city or county governments aren’t acceptable. Student IDs also are not accepted — not even ones issued by a state university.
I’ve heard a lot about voter fraud. How do I know the people I see at the polls are following the rules?
Voter impersonation is something people talk a lot about, but there’s not much evidence it’s a problem. After the 2016 elections, Tennessee officials identified 42 potential cases of voter fraud, out of more than 4 million votes cast. Only a handful were considered serious enough to be prosecuted. Many were simply errors.
Still, to guard against it, Tennessee requires voters to register in advance and show a photo ID when they cast a ballot. Poll workers have been trained to check signatures against their records. And if there’s any question, voters may be asked to cast a provisional ballot.
Once I’ve cast my vote, how do I know my vote won’t be stolen?
Some security experts have expressed fears in recent years that voting machines could be “hacked,” but election officials argue doing this on any scale while avoiding detection would be difficult. The machines aren’t connected to the internet, so hacking would require machines to have malware installed at the manufacturer or for someone to go to each machine individually.
The official investigation into the 2016 presidential election found no evidence that votes were changed. Still, fears that they could be have led election officials in Tennessee to replace their electronic voting machines with new ones that create a “paper trail.” Now, after voters enter their choices on a touch screen, they receive a printout that they can review. This ballot is then fed into an optical scanner and tabulated. If there’s any doubt about the outcome, election officials can check the paper ballots.
But election officials are more concerned about other cyberthreats, such as misinformation spread through social media and attacks on the list of eligible voters. In 2018, the Knox County Election Commission’s website was attacked, delaying results for an hour. Investigators later determined the denial-of-service attack was a smokescreen meant to distract the county’s IT department while hackers snooped through other databases.
What The Courts Are Saying
Who gets to distribute absentee ballot requests?
The short answer is: election officials. Only election officials.
That’s according to a law that has been in the books for decades. This year, though, two voting rights groups challenged the law.
They claimed that criminally prohibiting the distribution of absentee ballot applications “is an extraordinarily burdensome constraint on their ability to fully engage with voters and to encourage them to vote this fall.”
They also argued that it violates their First Amendment Right.
But earlier this year, Federal Judge Eli Richardson sided with the state on this one, keeping the law intact. He said the law doesn’t restrict political speech and that it doesn’t restrict “First Amendment ‘speech’ at all.”
“If some Tennesseans think that the Law is too broad, or enforced too harshly, or out of step with the Internet era, they should seek to persuade their legislators to amend or repeal the Law,” Richardson wrote in his ruling. “But the Court does not sit as a super-legislature, deciding whether it likes the law and then determining whether to enjoin enforcement of the law accordingly.”
How does the state determine a signature is mine?
In order for an absentee ballot to count, the state needs to verify that the signature on the absentee ballot request and on the absentee ballot match. If they don’t, the ballot could be rejected.
Voting rights groups sued the state, arguing that the signature verification provision could end up denying a voter’s right to vote. “Every absentee voter is at risk of having their ballot arbitrarily rejected based on a benign signature,” the lawsuit read.
But, Judge Richardson recently ruled that the provision can stay in place.
“Although the signature-verification requirement does represent some kind of obstacle between placing a vote and having it counted, the mere existence of such an obstacle does not mean that plaintiffs are excluded from voting,” Richardson said in the ruling.
He cited Tennessee’s low rejection rate, 0.03% over the last two elections, as part of his decision making.
I heard that because I’m a first-time voter in Tennessee, I need to show up at my local election commission in person and show an ID before I can cast an absentee ballot. Is that true?
Not at the moment because Judge Richardson sided with the groups challenging this provision.
The state had argued that they had that rule as part of a federal law. They said it “reflects ‘the intent of Congress that voters who register by mail show identification.’”
But, Richardson disagreed.
He said most of state’s asserted interests “are illusory, as they are premised upon a non-existent congressional requirement and non-existence congressional intent, respectively.”
Richardson said his decision would have favorably impact the public because “it would serve to prevent what, based on the current record, likely would be a violation of the First Amendment right to vote enjoyed by the American citizenry.”
This means that, for now, first-time mail voters won’t have to show up in person. Instead, they are required to submit a copy of their identification when mailing their absentee ballot.