Conversations about how to handle elections — specifically whether or not to switch to a vote-by-mail system — if COVID-19 persists through the fall are mounting both nationally and locally.
“We are working intensely with local election officials as we plan for multiple scenarios, including administering the upcoming elections under the present laws, as well as our recommendations for any potential changes,” emailed Julie Bruck, communications director for Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett. “These plans are evolving not only by the day but by the hour as we learn more about the epidemic and its effects.”
Blount County Administrator of Elections Susan Knopf said the switch to mail-in voting could have a large effect on the election days in both August and November.
“With an all mail-in system, there would be delays,” Knopf emailed. “With increased by-mail ballots, even with the purchase of a high-speed scanner, there would be delays. This would require more counting board workers to work diligently on Election Day and hopefully the delays would be minimal.”
Knopf also said mail-in ballots could increase the cost of elections because more postage and staff would be required. The election commission also would have to purchase more high-speed scanners to tally results.
Additionally, Bruck said that Washington Secretary of State Republican Kim Wyman shared that “trying to flip the switch by November would be a heavy lift and could have catastrophic results.”
“In conversations with Washington, a vote-by-mail state, they have shared that unless you are currently voting 60% absentee, a conversion for all voters to vote-by-mail period needs to be about five years,” Bruck said.
But the Blount County League of Women Voters released a statement May 3 stating that expanding Tennessee’s current vote-by-mail system could help protect the community from COVID-19 while also upping the number of voting Tennesseans.
“Communities across the nation are now considering how to handle upcoming elections with the COVID-19 pandemic hanging over us,” the BCLWV statement said. “How can we encourage the highest possible voter turnout while assuring the voters’ safety and election integrity?”
The answer, according to the league, is the expansion of the vote-by-mail system in Tennessee — which is “one logical step towards enhancing our democracy.”
“Our League strongly supports excuse-free voting-by-mail,” the statement reads. “This practice already exists in most states and presents the growing trend across all states — red, blue and purple.”
Five states — Oregon, Utah, Hawaii, Colorado and Washington — have vote-by-mail-only policies. Of those states, three are in the top 10 states for the highest voter turnout.
Tennessee falls 44th on that list, which was compiled by the United States Election Project.
“We want all citizens to be fully engaged in the democratic process,” the BCLWV statement reads. “In Tennessee, we want to improve our low voter participation rate, while keeping our voters safe and our elections secure.”
Currently, for a person to cast a mail-in ballot in Tennessee, he or she must apply and fall under at least one of 15 categories outlined by the Secretary of State’s office. Most of the categories regard physical disabilities, age or temporary change in residence due to school or military service.
According to Bruck, 30% of eligible voters in Tennessee are above the age of 60, but only 2% of those cast an absentee ballot in a typical election.
In Blount County, anywhere from 200 to 1,900 people vote absentee depending on the election, Knopf said.