Voting During the COVID-19 Pandemic


Why We must act now

As the United States finds itself in the grips of the growing COVID-19 pandemic, the largest and most deadly pandemic in almost 100 years, it has become increasingly clear that expanding access to vote by mail may be the only way to ensure the safety of our citizens and the continued functioning of our democracy in a moment of immeasurable crisis.

However, most state systems that enable Americans to receive and cast mail ballots are not adequately positioned to scale in advance of the November elections, and Tennessee is no exception. During the 2018 Midterm Elections, less than 2 percent of Tennesseans who voted in the election did so by mail; this means less than 43,500 of more than 2.2 million votes cast. If Tennessee is to be ready for the presidential election, then the time is now.

It is absolutely critical that the expansion of mail ballots comes with critical protections that protect historically disenfranchised communities and those communities most likely to be disenfranchised by the current pandemic. Without informed policymaking, marginalized communities will be shut out of the system; lawsuits will be filed; our election results contested; voters will miss absentee ballot deadlines and opportunities; and the health and vitality of our democracy will be further eroded.

The imperative in this moment is for Tennessee to swiftly expand vote by mail eligibility and capacity while rapidly adopting the necessary safeguards to maximize free, fair, and equal access and ensuring the integrity of our election system.

how we pay for it

Congress allocated $400 million as part of the CARES Act designed to ensure states have the money they need to protect their 2020 elections from COVID-19. Tennessee’s portion of the funding is $9,538,744, which includes $7,948,953 from the federal government and a state match of $1,589,791.

This money supplements previous federal funding, which can also be used for COVID-related election-preparation efforts. Here’s more information about the CARES Act funding, including guidelines about how it (and the previous dollars) can be spent.

Tennessee voters should not be forced to choose between their own personal safety and participating in our democratic process. We are in unprecedented circumstances that call for state officials to implement safer and secure approaches to ensure democracy is preserved in the Volunteer State.

Charlane Oliver in The Tennessean, 5/1/2020

Tennessee’s current vote by mail policy

Tennessee has some of the strictest laws when it comes to absentee voting. Under Tennessee law, unless a registered voter falls into one of 14 narrowly defined categories they may not vote by mail (T.C.A. § 2-6-201). None of those 14 categories appears to encompass individuals who are (1) under the age of 60, and (2) wish to vote by mail because of a fear that voting in person, whether early or on election day, might expose them or someone they live with, to COVID-19. For such voters, the only options are to either risk their health and vote in person, or to not vote at all. Tennessee also criminalizes providing assistance to voters in obtaining an absentee ballot application, making it a Class E felony if you do so.

Tennessee has excuse-required absentee voting. Tennessee restricts eligibility to vote by mail to those who are themselves ill or the caretakers of someone who is ill, along with other reasons inapplicable to a pandemic. In order for everyone to vote absentee, the legislature must eliminate the excuse requirement or, at the very least, make the existence of an ongoing pandemic a valid excuse.

Current Tennessee law contains the following barriers to receiving and casting mail ballots. Unnecessary hurdles present an obstacle for all voters, but they have been historically weaponized to suppress the vote in Black and Brown communities.

○        Unnecessary application requirements. Tennessee requires voters to put their entire Social Security numbers on their absentee ballot applications. In most states, voters may receive and cast an absentee ballot after providing only basic identifying information such as a signature, address, and/or date of birth.

○        Ballots may not be mailed to voters promptly. Tennessee provides no timeline for the mailing out of ballots.

○        No ballot tracking. Tennessee does not provide a way for voters to track their absentee ballots online. Most other states provide a means of tracking mail ballots, which gives voters confidence that their vote has been received and counted.

○        No prepaid postage. Tennessee does not pay for return postage on mail ballots, which will pose a problem during the pandemic, considering many people do not keep stamps on hand and Tennessee is expected to see a significant boost in unemployment.

If mail ballot usage increases, as is expected, we must ensure that ballots are not needlessly rejected. Ballot rejection tends to disproportionately impact young people, military personnel, voters of color, people with disabilities, and people for whom English is a second language. The following provisions in Tennessee law will result in high numbers of mail ballot rejections:

○        Insufficient mail ballot return deadline. Tennessee election officials do not accept ballots received after polls close on Election Day, even if the envelope is postmarked on or before Election Day.

○        Insufficient opportunity to fix issues with the mail ballot envelope. Mail ballots are rejected at a rate nearly twice as high as ballots cast in person. One way to reduce the rejection rate is to make sure ballots are not rejected for inadvertent mistakes on the absentee ballot envelope. Tennessee law provides no opportunity to correct mistakes on mail ballot envelopes. Given that only 2% of the voting population utilized absentee voting in a previous election, the surge in absentee ballots due to the pandemic is likely to result in a high rate of mistakes due to inexperience.

Although voters will be encouraged to vote by mail if at all possible, the following provisions of Tennessee law fail to provide sufficient opportunities to safely return and cast ballots in person for those who cannot cast a mail ballot or may need additional services, such as Native voters, voters with visual disabilities, and voters for whom English is a second language.


  1. Suspend the current absentee voting laws until the end of this year to effectively respond to the COVID-19 pandemic during a state of emergency
  2. Ensure all Tennesseans can vote safely and request an absentee ballot for the Aug 6 and Nov 3 elections by either allowing the pandemic to be an excuse or allowing voters to declare a disability
  3. Expand more polling locations and early voting days for those who choose to vote in-person to allow for social distancing
  4. Extend or relax voter registration deadlines closer to Election Day
  5. Invest in personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitation supplies to protect the health and safety of poll workers and voters and prevent the spread of coronavirus
  6. Invest in a public education and awareness campaign to communicate voting process changes