Chris Davis just knows it’s going to rain Nov. 3. He cares because he’s the Knox County administrator of elections, Nov. 3 is Election Day and weather there has been lousy on four of the last six elections.
He and other election officials across Tennessee have been planning for this election since March. It will be the culmination of years of presidential campaigning and of untold dollars spent on candidates and the process itself.
Election officials have planned for bad weather, power outages and other garden-variety election-day glitches. They’ve also factored in the coronavirus pandemic, record voter turnout and shattered political norms.
What can voters expect?
For starters, anticipate long lines at your precinct. Early voting started Oct. 14 and ended Oct. 29.
As of Oct. 25, reflecting absentee and early voting through Oct. 24, 1,653,612 people had cast ballots in Tennessee, an increase of 39.84% over the same period in the 2016 election. In Davidson County, 184,273 voted early, an increase of 50.77%. In Hamilton County, 72,921 voted early, an increase of 43.64%, and 108,164 voted early in Knox County, an increase of 12.21%.
There’s no telling, however, how many voters will show up Nov. 3. Expect to have to wait for results, largely because it will take time to count absentee ballots. Tennessee law prohibits the counting of absentee ballots until the polls open on Election Day, although election workers are allowed to start checking signatures on inside envelopes before Election Day.
Also, even though Tennessee is not a swing state in the presidential race, it’s still possible to see voter intimidation efforts or overzealous poll watchers, both of which can slow the process, University of Memphis Law professor Steven Mulroy says.
Poll watchers may enter the polling place. They’re not supposed to speak directly to voters, but they can speak to poll officials to point out rule violations or challenge voters.
“This could take up the time of official poll workers and distract them,” as well as “lead to delays,” Mulroy says.
Each party and each candidate may have two poll watchers per voting place, so theoretically there could be many people at the polls besides voters, poll workers and the people who are campaigning for their candidate who must stay at least 100 feet away from the polling site.
There are 1,965 voting precincts in Tennessee, and besides presidential candidates, there are candidates for U.S. and state senators and representatives on the ballot this year, along with a number of candidates for local office such as school board.
“As a practical matter … candidates probably won’t have poll watchers at every polling site,” Mulroy says.
Will there be disruptions?
It’s hard to say. Some feel disruptions are unlikely in Tennessee because partisans will focus on the more hotly contested states such as Georgia or Texas.
Others are concerned about the possibility of disruption, given some politicians’ statements that question the entire American political process, including the legitimacy of elections.
“Frankly, in Tennessee I’m not particularly worried” about disruption, says Marian Ott, president of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee. “It’s not a toss-up state.”
She says she has been concerned about “unfortunate rhetoric around the election” that seems intended to misinform voters.
Richard L. Pacelle Jr., professor and head of the political science department at the University of Tennessee, says President Trump’s “casting aspersions on the whole process” is contrary to American political norms.
A CNN report from August, for example, quoted the president as saying at a campaign stop in Wisconsin: “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if this election is rigged.”
Trump’s statements exceed the bounds of professional politics, because professional politicians don’t want to destroy the institutions underlying the political system, Pacelle adds.
As for the pandemic and its impact, it is possible to vote on Election Day even if you’re sick, and even if you have COVID-19.
Under the state’s contingency plan for voting during the pandemic, you cannot enter your regular polling place if you are experiencing shortness of breath, sore throat, achiness, fever (100.4F), nasal congestion or cough, or if you have been in contact with anyone with those symptoms.
Voters who cannot enter the polling place can be offered the opportunity to vote at a COVID-19 site, usually the election commission office.
“We have told the counties to have a COVID-19 voting site on Election Day” under a state contingency plan, says Julia Bruck, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office. In most instances, this voting location will be the election commission office, she says.
What can be done going forward to increase the likelihood of timely election results?
Mulroy suggests changing state law to allow absentee ballots to be opened and counted before Election Day, as many other states do. Even allowing counting to begin in Tennessee on the day before the election would make it easier to report timely results.
This year’s surge in absentee mail-in ballots may be a one-time occurrence, he says, but the trend is toward more voting by mail, and now that people have gotten a taste of it, more people may continue to do it.
So, bearing all this in mind that this Election Day will probably be like no other they’ve experienced, voters can still take basic steps to make the process smoother.
Be prepared that you may need to ask for a provisional ballot, either if you’re told you can’t vote or if you voted by absentee ballot earlier but you can’t find out if your election commission received your ballot. Election officials say the provisional ballots are always offered to voters if there’s any question about whether they can vote.
Election officials say they will do everything they can to help make sure that everyone can vote, even people who aren’t listed on their records as being eligible to vote.
Ask for a provisional ballot if:
• You are told at the polling place that you aren’t at the right location to vote
• You’re not on the list of registered voters
• You’re told you are disqualified from voting because of a felony conviction and you think the poll workers are mistaken
The questions that caused a voter to receive a provisional ballot will be addressed after the election, with the voter having a fixed time to present documentation that they are entitled to vote or for the election officials to reconcile missing absentee ballots and provisional ballots.
Remember, initial election results are unofficial. States have time after the election to certify election results.
Go where you’re supposed to be. Knox County’s Davis says many folks who vote on Election Day vote only in presidential elections and may not know the location of their polling place or on what counts as proper identification. Go online to GoVoteTN.com to find your polling place.
Have the correct type of identification. A Tennessee driver’s license or photo ID issued by the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, Tennessee state government or the federal government are acceptable even if they are expired. College student IDs won’t work, even if they’re from a state-run college in Tennessee.
Full information on valid IDs is available at https://sos.tn.gov/products/elections/what-id-required-when-voting
Don’t wear political attire – hats, T-shirts, buttons or face masks. (Some counties will require face masks because of the COVID-19 virus, but a mask with a political message or photo won’t be allowed).
Be prepared to wait in line, especially if you arrive at the polling place minutes before polls close. As long as you are in line by the time polls close, 7 p.m. CST, 8 p.m. EST, you will be able to vote, but you have to stick around. You won’t be able to vote if you leave.