Voting During a Pandemic

  • July 7, 2020

This information was last updated September 10th, 2020, 12:00pm. Details of the voting process continue to develop for the November 3rd, 2020 election. Before you vote, be sure to review the information on the Secretary of State’s website or check with your local Election Commission

What are your Options?

Voting is a civic opportunity given to all Tennessee citizens over the age of 18 who have registered to vote. When you vote, you help elect the people who make the laws that affect your life. There are many issues that affect people with disabilities. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have been concerned about the safety of voting in-person. Fortunately, there are now more ways to vote in the 2020 elections than ever before.

You may have heard that in June, Davidson County Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled that the State’s absentee voting guidelines were too stringent in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. This ruling required that the State of Tennessee allow all voters to vote absentee for the remaining 2020 elections, if they choose. This decision was appealed by the State and another Judge overturned this decision in August. For the November 2020 election, you may only vote absentee because of COVID-19 if you are particularly vulnerable or caring for someone who is. The previous reasons for voting absentee have not changed. It is not yet clear how the State will define an underlying health condition, but this may be an option for many who are immunosuppressed or have other health concerns for voting in person. If you have questions or concerns about voting absentee in November, you can contact your county's election commission. Find your county election commission

Voting Accessibility

At Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) we are always working to improve the accessibility of the voting process – from registering to vote to casting a ballot. For example, DRT worked with the State on web accessibility during the launch of their online voter registration system. You can register to vote online at the Secretary of State’s website. Register to vote. DRT also does regular poll site surveys to review the physical accessibility of poll site locations from their parking to voting machines. Learn more about DRT's poll site sureys. And on election days, DRT runs a voter hotline where people with disabilities can call and report an issue voting. The number to call on August 6th or November 3rd if you are experiencing a barrier to voting is 1-800-342-1660.

For voting to be accessible a voter must be able to mark and cast their ballot privately and independently. Voting privately and independently means that you are able to vote by yourself without anyone’s help. While the June Judicial ruling allowing broader absentee voting is a great outcome for many and reduces the risk for infection and spread of COVID-19 during the voting process, it has not been an accessible solution for all people with disabilities. Recently, DRT and partners sent a demand letter for Tennessee to make absentee ballots accessible to people with print disabilities. There is now an option to complete a Print Disability Absentee Ballot Request form to request an accessible ballot by e-mail. Read more about accessible absentee ballots

This option is not yet fully accessible, as it requires the voter to complete their ballot electronically and then print, sign, and mail it to their county election commission. To address these concerns, DRT is actively working to improve the accessibility of the absentee ballot process.

Voting Process

The first step to voting is ensuring you’re registered to vote. If you are not currently registered to vote, you can register online at the Secretary of State's website. Register to vote. If you are not sure if you are registered to vote, you can check your status. Check your voter registration status. Once you are sure you’re registered, the next step is to decide how you will cast your vote.

There are more options than ever for voting during the August 6th and November 3rd elections in 2020. You may choose to use Early Voting. When you Early Vote, you go into a polling site to vote in-person during the ‘Early Voting’ period that begins before Election Day. This time covers multiple days and may be a more accessible option for people who have challenging schedules on Election Day itself. You can also go into to a polling site to vote in-person on Election Day. Or, you may want to vote from home using an absentee ballot.

Absentee Voting

Absentee or by mail voting is when you fill out your ballot at home and return it by mail to be counted. If you choose to vote absentee, you must meet certain criteria. View a full list of criteria for voting absentee. Once you meet the criteria, you must first submit an application to vote absentee with your county’s election commission. This is your request to receive an absentee ballot. Once the commission receives and processes your request, they will send you an absentee ballot to complete and return. You must meet specific deadlines to request and return your ballot. Most importantly you must mail your completed ballot so that it arrives at your county election commission no later than the close of polls on Election Day. You can find more information on requesting and voting absentee at the Secretary of State’s website.

To vote absentee it used to matter if you were a first time voter. First time voters could not vote absentee unless they first showed identification at their election office. However, on September 9th, a Federal Judge blocked this Tennessee law for the November election. Now registered, first time voters can vote absentee during the November election as long as they meet one of the criteria for voting absentee. View a full list of criteria for voting absentee. This decision may be appealed which could change the Judge’s decision. You may wish to check the Tennessee Secretary of State’s website or your county’s election office before making your plans to vote. Visit the Secretary of State's website. Find your Local Election Commission

 It is important to note two key measures if you choose to vote absentee:

  • Once you have requested an absentee ballot, you cannot vote in person. Be sure that you will vote absentee before requesting a ballot.
  • Litigation is pending on various features of absentee voting, so be sure to check with your local Election Commission before voting. 

2020 Tennessee Elections and Deadlines

August 6, 2020

  • Deadline to request an absentee ballot | July 30
  • Ballot must be returned by mail by the close of polls on Election Day. However, it is advisable to return your ballot before the deadline.

November 3, 2020

  • First day to request an absentee ballot | August 5
  • Deadline to request an absentee ballot | October 27
  • Ballot must be returned by mail by the close of polls on Election Day. However, it is advisable to return your ballot before the deadline.

Voting in the United States is both a right and responsibility for residents over the age of 18 and people with disabilities are no exception. Though the voting process is still not fully accessible to all Tennesseans with disabilities, DRT will not rest until it is. Although 2020 might be the most unusual election any of us experience, we have more options available to us than ever before to engage in the voting process.  

Resources

Find your county election commission

Request an absentee ballot

View the Tennessee election calendar

Visit GoVoteTN

 

If you have an issue during the voting process, contact us at 1-800-342-1660 or at GetHelp@disabilityrightstn.org.

Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) is a nonprofit legal services organization that provides free legal advocacy services to protect the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities.

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