“In consultation with the Attorney General’s office the fear of getting ill does not fall under the definition of ill,” Elections Coordinator Mark Goins told The Associated Press in a statement Tuesday about the viral outbreak.
The state with about 4 million registered voters is heading to an Aug. 6 primary election featuring a contested Republican primary for an open U.S. Senate seat. The election will be another test case as U.S. states try to safely prepare for the fall general election highlighted by President Donald Trump’s re-election bid.
Republican Gov. Bill Lee swiftly backed the interpretation of the state elections coordinator, telling reporters “what we want to do in this state is remove a reason to have fear about going to the polling booths.”
The plan doesn’t contemplate a shift to a universal vote-by-mail option offered in some states 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 to make at short notice for a state accustomed to in-person voting. The GOP-led Legislature this year rejected attempts to expand absentee voting amid a pandemic.
Tennessee and several other states have faced lawsuits seeking to expand absentee voting. Among them are Texas and Louisiana, where Republican officials declined to interpret fears of contracting the virus as a reason to vote absentee.
Though it's unlikely every senior will vote by mail — voters 60 and older are all eligible — Tennessee's plan says it's better to over-prepare in “uncharted territory” for efforts to predict absentee voting turnout. The state has ordered 4 million each of three types of absentee voting envelopes, in addition to 80,000 ordered for a normal election cycle.
The blueprint recommends new looks for in-person voting during the pandemic: Plexiglass dividers to protect voters and election workers; popsicle sticks, Q-tips or plastic wrap so voters don't touch electronic machines; and a possible take-a-number, wait-in-your car option until it's your turn to vote. More sites and longer hours for early voting are also recommended.
At the polls, voters will see hand sanitizer, health warning signs, masked workers and floor markings 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart to maintain social distancing. 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. “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 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 state and federal lawsuits seek an order 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, from being ill to being at least 60. One lawsuit argues that not letting people younger than 60 vote absentee violates equal protection rights under the state Constitution.
“If universal absentee voting could save the life of at least one Tennessean, it is both necessary and beneficial,” said Democratic state Rep. London Lamar of Memphis. Someone quarantined because of potential exposure or a positive virus test should vote absentee, the state's plan says.
In Tennessee, sick, hospitalized and disabled voters and caretakers of certain vulnerable people can request absentee ballots for individual elections without a doctor's note, which is needed to get on a permanent absentee voting list.
In the state court lawsuit, attorneys for Memphis-based voting rights group #UPTheVote901 and several voters suggest 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. But the plan says consolidating polling places because of a health risk like a positive virus case should be a last resort.
Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.
Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tennessee and Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville contributed to this report.