In-person voting rule challenges Rutherford County voter ill with COVID-19

(Photo: iStock/Getty Images)
(Photo: iStock/Getty Images)

On July 29, Brittney Whidden received a phone call from the Rutherford County Election Commission. While her husband’s absentee ballot had been approved, hers would not be. Whidden pushed back, and the election commission made an exception.

Whidden, who tested positive for COVID-19 and is recovering, received her ballot via mail July 31, but reached out to the Lookout with concerns that other voters might not receive a similar exception. Whidden is a white woman and feared Black voters and other marginalized voters may not be given the same treatment.

Whidden’s initial request was denied because of a state law concerning new and first-time voters and how the election commission verifies their identities. In an email statement made to Whidden, Alan Farley, Administrator of Elections in Rutherford County, said TN Code § 2-2-115 states that voters must have voted in person or otherwise verified their identity before requesting an absentee ballot.

Alan Farley, Rutherford County Administrator of Elections (Photo: Twitter)
Alan Farley, Rutherford County Administrator of Elections (Photo: Twitter)

The code states that “each person who registers by mail shall appear in person to vote in the first election the person votes in…before voting at the appropriate polling place or election commission office, such person shall present satisfactory proof of identity. This subdivision (b) (7) does not apply to a person who is on the permanent absentee voting Register.”

Whidden, who is a registered voter in Rutherford County, had recently moved and although she had submitted her address change, had not yet voted in person. She said in a statement an election official initially suggested she drive to the election commission and prove her identity in person, despite Whidden self-isolating due to being positive for coronavirus. After contacting Farley, the exception was made and Whidden’s ballot was mailed.

Farley said the state law affects many voters. In a Facebook post Whidden created to ask other Rutherford County residents about their experiences, Farley said the law would likely apply to “any first-year college freshman during a presidential election.”

Farley also said Whidden should be grateful he made the exception.

“I could have denied her based on the law,” Farley commented. “Instead of saying thank you, she brings up voter suppression allegations.”

His comments on the post have since been deleted.

Farley said in a statement to the Lookout that Rutherford County makes it easy to vote in person, such as being able to vote at any location on election day. However, Shanna Hughey, president of ThinkTennessee, has concerns about the absentee ballot law and others like it in Tennessee. 

“Most states don’t have this [absentee voting] law, and many Tennesseans—from students to new state residents to those who recently moved from one county to another—could be affected by it,” Hughey said in an email statement.

ThinkTennessee is a nonpartisan think tank that provides policy and research information to the media and other outlets; Hughey said a record number of Tennesseeans went to the polls August 6, and that at least 500% more requested mail-in ballots.

  Unless the courts rule otherwise or our elected officials take action, Tennessee will be one of the only states where most voters are required to cast their ballots in November's presidential elections.   – Shanna Hughey, ThinkTennessee

Hughey said more voters than ever qualified to mail-in ballots because the Davidson County Chancery Court issued an injunction allowing voters who were concerned about COVID-19 to vote absentee. However, the state appealed that ruling. In November, only voters with valid “excuses” will be able to request absentee ballots, in addition to individuals who have medical or health conditions that increase their vulnerability to coronavirus.

“Unless the courts rule otherwise or our elected officials take action, Tennessee will be one of the only states where most voters are required to cast their ballots in person in November’s presidential election,” Hughey said. “Tennessee voters deserve the same opportunity as everyone else to safely cast their ballots this year.”

Hughey said it was positive to see that in the early hours following the August 6 election, officials had handled record numbers of absentee ballots with minimal reported issues. Additionally, Davidson County Administrator of Elections Jeff Roberts said absentee ballots were accepted at the official post office drop-off until the end of election day, so voters could continue to submit ballots they had yet to mail in.

While Whidden’s initial concern was how marginalized voters—such as those without the transport to the election commission’s office to prove their identity in person—may be affected by the law, it encompasses a much larger demographic. Both Davidson County and Rutherford County election commissions could not say how many ballots were denied in total, but said many of those turned down were due to signature mismatches or a lack of signature. It is not clear how many voters who were contacted to fix their ballots were able to do so.

Issues with absentee ballot voting appear in the national news almost daily, as President Trump voices untrue concerns about voter fraud, such as deceased people voting or election commissions having no way to verify identity. Those concerns have not been realized, and in Tennessee it’s possible the opposite is true—election commissions are working so hard to verify voters it may leave some out.

As for November, Hughey is hopeful the voting system will remain effective and said, “hardworking local election officials’ careful planning paid off—and demonstrated that Tennessee’s voting process is adaptable and resilient.”

Whidden hopes there are some slight changes. 

“I hope [at] the very least Department of Safety and county election commissions can verify ballot requests more efficiently, regardless of the reason for absentee requests,” Whidden said.