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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.

Regis­tra­tion

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