What to know about requesting an absentee ballot for upcoming elections

(Photo: Hill Street Studios/Getty Images)
(Photo: Hill Street Studios/Getty Images)

Tennessee became one of the last states to expand mail-in voting earlier this month when Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled that voters under 60 can request an absentee ballot because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lyle’s ruling has been appealed by the state of Tennessee, but the Supreme Court said earlier this month it won’t consider the appeal in time for the August election.

That means voters in all 95 counties can request an absentee ballot.

Here are the key points to know about requesting an absentee ballot.

Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle (Photo: Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts)

How absentee voting was expanded in Tennessee

Tennessee was one of a vast majority of states that had strict rules for requesting an absentee ballot before the pandemic hit. Voters had to be 60-years-old or older, in the military, or living out of town to make such a request. Additionally, voters with a medical condition that essentially left them bedridden could also request a ballot.

When the pandemic hit, several voters under the age of 60 with medical conditions that make them susceptible to the COVID-19 virus sued the state to expand absentee voting. The state argued that such expansion of absentee voting was logistically impossible and that mail-in voting is prone to fraud.

Lyle ruled that fear of the virus was a good enough reason to request a ballot. When the state posted a confusing absentee request form on their site, Lyle responded by changing the language on the request form to clearly state the COVID-19 pandemic is the reason voters are making the request.

The state appealed Lyle’s ruling, but the appeal won’t be considered until later this month. That means, voters are allowed to request an absentee ballot from the county election commissions for the August election.

It’s murkier for November because state law allows voters to begin requesting absentee ballots 90 days prior to the election. For the November presidential election, that would be Aug. 2.

The appeal is likely to be heard in mid-July and a ruling shortly after that so voters know if they can make the request for November.

If you registered to vote for the first time, either because you turned 18 and this is your first election, or because you recently moved to Tennessee, you must visit your election commission with a government photo ID to get an absentee ballot.

The photo identification requirement

Requesting an absentee ballot is not necessarily as simple as it seems because of Tennessee’s existing photo identification law for voting.

Only voters who have been designated as “in-person” by their local election commission can request an absentee ballot. For the vast majority of people, this designation applies to any registered voter who has voted in person at a precinct and showed their government ID to a poll worker.

But, if you registered to vote for the first time, either because you turned 18 and this is your first election, or because you recently moved to Tennessee, you will not have the “in-person” designation.

Lisa Quigley, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, raised the issue of this odd loophole in a Twitter thread that went viral over the weekend.

Quigley recommends that first-time voters and new Tennessee voters visit their election commission, bringing along a government photo ID, and request their absentee ballot in person.

This is especially critical for college students, for whom the photo ID requirement has already proven confusing in recent elections, Quigley said. Cooper and state Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, teamed up to get the word out about absentee voting and the ID requirement in a series of voter registration events they led at Nashville high schools. Cooper and Dickerson were accompanied by election officials so that when high school students registered with a photo ID, they were marked “in-person” and therefore had the ability to vote by mail if they went to college out of town the next year.

State Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Making the request in-person at the election commission will allow first-time voters to be approved to vote by mail in August.

For Nashville voters, the address is 1417 Murfreesboro Pike, Nashville, TN 37217.

In a federal court case in which plaintiffs are also seeking to expand absentee voting because of the pandemic, the state of Tennessee has indicated that it will not loosen its interpretation of the photo ID requirement for absentee requests due to the pandemic.

How popular is absentee voting in Nashville?

Absentee ballot requests are skyrocketing in Nashville since Lyle’s order. Davidson County Administrator of Elections Jeff Roberts said on Wednesday there have been 15,741 requests. Compare that to the last presidential election in 2016 when there were 1,736 total requests for the August primary election.

It’s clear that voters are eager to vote by mail during the pandemic. Prior to the Lyle’s ruling, Tennessee was one of just five states not to expand absentee voting due to the pandemic.