Tennessee official: Fear of virus not reason to vote by mail

By JONATHAN MATTISE Associated Press NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Fear of contracting the coronavirus doesn't meet the criteria to vote by mail due to illness in Tennessee, state officials said Tuesday, as they recommended preparing as though all 1.4 million registered voters who are at least 60 will cast ballots by mail in the August primary election. "In consultation with the Attorney General's office the fear of getting ill does not fall under the definition of ill," Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins told The Associated Press in a statement Tuesday. The guidance comes after the release of Tennessee's COVID-19 election contingency plan, which was prepared by the state Division of Elections, dated April 23, and provided this week to the AP. The plan doesn't contemplate a shift to allow all voters to cast ballots by mail due to fears of contracting or unknowingly spreading COVID-19 at the polls. Republican Secretary of State Tre Hargett has contended that would be a huge change in a short time frame for a state accustomed to voting in person. The GOP-led Legislature this year also brushed aside attempts to expand absentee voting in the midst of a pandemic. Several states, including Tennessee, have faced lawsuits to expand absentee voting. Though it's unlikely to see every senior vote by mail — voters 60 and older are all eligible for an absentee ballot — the plan says Tennessee is in "uncharted territory" in trying to predict how prevalent absentee voting will be this year and it's better to over-prepare. For instance, the state has ordered 4 million each of three types of absentee voting envelopes, in addition to the 80,000 ordered for a normal election cycle. The blueprint recommends new looks for voting in-person in the age of COVID-19: Use of Plexiglass dividers to protect voter and election workers; popsicle sticks, candy sticks, Q-tips or plastic wrap so voters don't have to touch electronic machines; and a possible take-a-number, wait-in-your car option until it's your turn to vote. The plan also says it could take days to see election results in August due to a flood of absentee voting. "Tennessee election officials have designed election preparation around the habits of the 97.5% of Tennessee voters who vote in-person," says the state's plan, which was prepared with help from federal, state and county officials and voting machine vendors. "Preparing for the increased absentee mail-in ballots will be an extreme challenge." About a third of states, including Tennessee, require an excuse to vote absentee, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In at least seven states that require excuses, officials have interpreted the pandemic as a valid reason to vote absentee in primary elections, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Separate lawsuits in state and federal court seek to require that absentee ballots become available to all voters in Tennessee, which currently requires one of more than a dozen valid excuses to vote by mail, ranging from being ill to being at least 60. One of the lawsuits argues that not affording people younger than 60 the right to absentee voting violates equal protection rights in the state Constitution. The election guidance specifies that someone who has been quarantined because of potential exposure to COVID-19 or has tested positive for the virus should vote absentee. In Tennessee, sick, hospitalized and disabled voters and caretakers of certain vulnerable voters can request absentee ballots for individual elections without a doctor's note. Voters with an ongoing illness need a doctor's note to get on a permanent absentee voting list. In the state court lawsuit seeking an absentee voting expansion, attorneys for Memphis-based voting rights group #UPTheVote901 and several voters go so far as to suggest that a Tennessee doctor could certify an entire county as "medically unable to vote" because of pandemic dangers. In Nashville, elections administrator Jeff Roberts has said he'll likely advise that voters ask their doctors whether they are too ill to vote in-person. The state warns that the threat of contamination at the polls could make some facility managers wary of offering space for early and Election Day voting. If there's a health risk at a polling site — for instance, a case of COVID-19 — polling places could be consolidated, but it should be a last resort to maintain social distancing, the plan says. Lawmakers this year expanded criteria to allow more people to serve as poll workers. Still, recruitment may be the state's "biggest challenge," the plan says. At the polls, voters will see hand sanitizer, health warning signs, masked workers, floor markings 6 feet apart and other staples of pandemic times.

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