A candidate for the Blount County Commission has been reminded of proper protocol surrounding the handling of request forms for absentee ballots.
Jackie Hill, a Democrat running for Seat A of District 1, said Thursday she helped voters with their requests for absentee ballots, including bringing these voters blank applications, filling out personal information for them, and delivering them to the election commission. Hill says these voters, who mostly are elderly, disabled or otherwise unable to leave their homes, asked her to do these things.
The move drew ire from Republican candidates in District 1, and at least two of whom have shared information on social media calling it an improper solicitation of absentee ballots.
Administrator of Elections Susan Hughes said those critics do not understand the issue they raise.
Hughes confirmed that a female candidate delivered filled-out requests for absentee ballots to the Blount County Election Commission — which they considered improper, but not a crime.
“Whatever misunderstanding the candidate had, we’ve made it clear that that can’t happen,” Hughes said.
The delivery affected only a “dozen or so” voters, Hughes said, adding they were voters who “can’t get to the polls and they don’t know how to vote.”
The elections office reached out to those voters by phone and followed up with a letter, which included new absentee ballot request forms as well as return envelopes.
Hughes said the commission is looking into adding these voters to a list of permanent absentee ballot voters, provided a doctor certifies their access issues.
Besides the improper delivery, Hughes said the elections office did not believe any other improper actions were taken.
Under Tennessee law, it is a misdemeanor for people not affiliated with an election commission to hand out an unsolicited request for an absentee ballot.
Hill called the controversy surrounding these absentee voters “ridiculous.”
Tanya Martin, another Democrat who is running alongside Hill for Seat B in District 1, said she and Hill were going door to door canvassing for support.
Hill said that for years she has helped seniors and people with disabilities in the Alcoa area get to the polls.
“Everyone knows that’s what Jackie Hill does,” she said. “All the years I’ve been in Alcoa, every election, I take them, or they ask me to get them an absentee ballot.”
Hill says she printed the requests out and took them to people who had asked for an absentee ballot and said some asked her to fill out their information for them, including their names, addresses and Social Security numbers. “But they had to sign it,” Hill said.
The similar handwriting between request forms was noticed.
“It is my understanding that these applications for absentee ballots were turned in to the Election Commission personally by a Democratic candidate and were filled out by that candidate!” reads an email sent to Republican candidates, as it was reposted on social media. “While these applications were caught by the Election Commission, there is absolutely no way of determining how many other applications were personally solicited by this or other Democratic candidates.”
Blount County Republican Party Chairman Jim Snyder said that he wrote the email based on observations provided by an individual who had reviewed the applications.
At least two Republican candidates shared the information.
Rick Hudolin, who is running for District 1, Seat A, of the Blount County Commission, was one of them.
He said he could not confirm the information.
“I’m busy working on my own campaign, trying to win this thing. If someone is operating outside the rules, they should be held accountable,” he said.
Snyder said the laws surrounding absentee ballots are in place for a reason.
“There is always a danger when you do not have identified voters going to a secure location and voting,” he said. “If the concern wasn’t there, why is the statute there?”
Blount County Democratic Party Chairman Bob Hayne called the restrictions “a certain form of voter suppression,” referring to the requirement that only election officials handle the request forms for absentee ballots. “Not everybody has a computer,” he said.
Hayne said the Blount County Democratic Party is planning to bring legislation to the attention of elected officials.