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Protecting Election 2020 from Covid-19: A Toolkit for Tennessee Activists

If the Covid-19 pandemic continues into November, we will need to change our election practices to make sure voters don’t have to choose between their health and their right to vote. We have the solutions to make our elections both safe and accessible to all. And with this toolkit, you will know what reforms your state needs and where to focus your efforts.

Last Updated: August 24, 2020
Published: August 24, 2020

This is part of the Brennan Center’s Toolkits for Activists Across the Nation.

Jump to a section: 
Political Context  |  What’s in Place and What’s Needed  |  Key Dates

Administering an election under pandemic conditions requires undertaking steps to keep voting accessible, safe, and secure. The guide below lays out the problems Covid-19 poses, what preparedness measures Tennessee has, and what changes are still needed. But first, we offer some political context for your advocacy.

Advocacy Focus: Local Reform

Local officials have a lot of responsibility over elections. They are a great place to focus advocacy efforts. Though state officials can make any of the changes in this toolkit, we highlight some examples of changes that local elections officials can also make with this symbol:🔸

Political Context

Below is a list of the relevant officials and information about the legislative session.

Governor: Bill Lee (R)  

Secretary of State: Tre Hargett (R)

Legislature: House (R) Senate (R)

Legislative Session: The legislature last adjourned on June 19, 2020. Either the legislature or the governor can call a special legislative session.

Local Elections Officials: In Tennessee, county election commissions share responsibilities for administering elections. You can look up individual county election commissions here.

What Tennessee Has and What’s Needed

Three priorities. There are three key areas where we need to shore up our elections systems for success during a pandemic: registration, mail voting, and in-person voting.


Covid-19 may disrupt the traditional ways Americans register to vote, like get out the vote drives or registering at government agencies. In the crucial weeks before the registration deadline, postal service disruptions may lead many registration forms to arrive at election offices after the deadline.

Preparatory Measures Tennessee Already Has Taken:

  • Online voter registration 

Changes Still Needed:

  • Prepare to extend online and mail voter registration deadlines based on conditions in the state
  • Voter registration on Election Day

Voting by Mail

Because of Covid-19, long lines and crowds at the polls pose health risks not seen in previous elections. Allowing every citizen to vote by mail reduces the number of people at the polls on Election Day and decreases the exposure risk to Covid-19.

Preparatory Measures Tenneessee Already Has Taken:

  • No ID requirement to vote by mail
  • No notary or witness requirement for return of mail ballot

Changes Still Needed:

  • Allow all voters to vote by mail without an excuse 
  • Online tool for requesting an absentee ballot
  • Provide pre-paid postage for voting by mail
  • Accept late-arriving ballots postmarked by Election Day
  • Provide post-election notice and cure opportunity for defects on absentee-ballot envelope, including signature mismatch or missing signatures
  • Allow absentee-ballot applications to be sent to all voters who have not yet applied

In-Person Voting

Even with expanded mail voting opportunity, states cannot close polling places. To do so may disenfranchise voters without Internet and mail access, or those who do not wish to cast a ballot by mail. In-person voting must be done in accordance with health guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

Preparatory Measures Tennessee Already Has Taken:

  • In-person early voting
  • Vote Centers on election day

Changes Still Needed:

  • Ensure sufficient polling places are open and resourced on Election Day🔸
  • Open more in-person early voting locations🔸
  • Take proper public health precautions to ensure safe polling places🔸
  • Hold training sessions for polling-place workers well in advance of Election Day, so that election officials can better anticipate problems with staffing and logistics🔸
  • Increase access to curbside voting at polling locations

Advocacy Focus: Protecting Polling Places

No matter how prepared Tennessee is as a matter of policy, elections officials and advocates must stay vigilant about ensuring safe, healthy in-person voting is an option for everyone all the way through Election Day. Here are some important things to know about who makes decisions about polling places in Tennessee and what rules govern the process:

  • Polling locations cannot be changed 10 days before the election except in an emergency. Absentee counting boards can also be relocated in an emergency.🔸
  • Any county having a “metropolitan form of government” and a population greater than 100,000 is prohibited from having more than one polling place for a precinct located in the same room if space is available.🔸

Key Dates for Tennessee Elections

  • July 7, 2020: Deadline to register to vote for the Primary Election
  • July 17, 2020: First day of Early Voting for the Primary Election
  • August 1, 2020: Last day of Early Voting for the Primary Election
  • August 6, 2020: Primary Election Day
  • October 5, 2020: Deadline to register to vote for the General Election
  • October 14, 2020: First day of Early Voting for the General Election
  • October 27, 2020: Deadline to Request an Absentee Ballot for the General Election
  • October 29, 2020: Last day of Early Voting for the General Election
  • November 3, 2020: General Election Day