Our journey through America’s varying levels of pandemic-voting preparedness continues this week with looks at Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, North Carolina and Nevada.
Every week, we’re looking at what states have done — or not done — to make voting easier during the coronavirus outbreak, where the fights over those moves have been the most contentious, and which states feature the kind of competitive races that could make things extra messy and volatile come November.
Here’s this week’s installment of our survey, and check out the other states we’ve examined.
Alabama has been ground zero for some of the biggest voting rights battles in U.S. history, so it’s not surprising that its fight over absentee voting during COVID-19 has been among the most contentious in the country. And while Alabama is not a presidential swing state, Sen. Doug Jones (D) still sees an outside chance of retaining his Senate seat, meaning that it could be the site of a national, partisan fight if things in November go awry.
Alabama requires an excuse to vote absentee and thus it usually sees mail ballots making up a very small percentage — among of the lowest in the county — of all ballots cast.
The use of mail voting is expected to skyrocket now that Secretary of State John Merrill has said that voters can use the excuse related to physical infirmities to avoid in-person voting while the coronavirus poses a risk to their health. But he has resisted efforts to relax the state’s photo ID and witness requirements for absentee voting, and went all the way to the Supreme Court to reverse a federal judge’s order that those requirements be waived in certain counties for the July primary. The case also sought an order allowing for counties to implement curbside voting, which Merrill has issued guidance against, even if it isn’t explicitly prohibited by state law. A trial on the merits in the lawsuit begins in September, though if the state loses, it’s expected to get the Supreme Court involved again.
Regardless of how that case unfolds, election officials are preparing for a major surge in absentee voting. In Birmingham, for instance, they are beginning to think they may have to triple their staff so that the ballots can be fully processed and counted on the evening of Election Day.
“To be quite frank, I think everybody in the state is going to need to hire more people,” Jefferson County Circuit Clerk Jacqueline Anderson told TPM.
Additionally, the state does not offer early in-person voting in a traditional sense — though absentee voters can apply for and submit their mail ballots in-person at their election offices in the weeks leading up to the election. Voter advocates are encouraging that option, because the witness, ID and notary requirements can be fulfilled on the spot by the election workers on staff at the office. Alabama also has a quick turnaround time for absentee requests, letting voters request mail ballots just five days before they must be received back at the elections office, by noon the day before the Election. Experts have cautioned that that window could be too tight for the ballot to make it to the voter and back to officials, and much of the state’s messaging is focused on encouraging absentee voters to submit their requests much earlier than the deadline.
This June, Kentucky pulled off the impossible: a smooth election amid a pandemic with primary turnout higher than the state had seen in over a decade. Seventy five percent of those 1.13 million voters cast their ballots by mail in a state where the vote-by-mail share usually hovers around 2 percent. The success was due in large part to the bipartisan cooperation between Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, and Secretary of State Michael Adams, a Republican. The two used their emergency powers to extend absentee voting eligibility to all voters; Kentuckians usually need an excuse to vote absentee. They also extended the early voting period, set up drop boxes and, with the state Board of Elections, set up an online portal through which voters could request their ballots.
The two reached another agreement for the general election, and the state Board of Elections approved it last week. Though it nixes the no-excuse absentee voting, concern about catching or spreading the novel coronavirus now qualifies as an excuse. It also provides for three weeks of Monday-through-Saturday early voting, and again stands up an online portal for requesting a ballot. The plan mandates at least one “super-center” polling place in each county, where every voter can go regardless of his or her precinct. This time, clerks will be required to contact voters whose ballots lack a signature, or have a signature mismatch, to give them time to correct it.
Though the changes are positive enough that many voting advocates are calling for them to become permanent even after the pandemic subsides, there are still some concerns about whether the relatively smooth primary experience will translate to a smooth general election. Election officials haven’t yet recruited enough poll workers, and a higher turnout in the general will put the mail-in ballot apparatus to the test. Election officials in Kentucky’s biggest counties already reported being strained to the breaking point in June.
Don Blevin, clerk for Fayette County, which includes Lexington, has a grim outlook. There are “mountains of ballots to get in the mail (we are at 24k requests already), mountains to process, I don’t have locations nailed down for in-person nor the people needed to man them,” he told TPM in an email. “This is the equivalent of running three different elections simultaneously and is the absolute worst case scenario for County Clerks.”
It could be a mess of an election this year in North Carolina, amid a perfect storm of the pandemic, record numbers of absentee ballot requests, and fiercely contested races both for the White House and the Senate, where Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) is fighting for reelection. Meanwhile, the GOP enjoys a majority in the state legislature, which could be diminished this year after a court order mandated that the state redraw its district maps. Right-wing groups are suing to purge more than a million voters from the state’s rolls due to “inactivity” in majority liberal areas, while numerous lawsuits have been filed over the state’s absentee voting laws.
The ironic backdrop to all this is that the state is home to an extremely rare, live case of absentee voter fraud. GOP operative McCrae Dowless was charged with election fraud for an alleged absentee ballot harvesting scheme that could have thrown a tight election to a Republican congressional candidate. After that scandal, the state passed a law by bipartisan majorities that set new limits on voting by mail, including a restriction that only a close relative could help a voter complete the ballot.
Then, COVID-19 struck. When it comes to voting, the state got lucky: it has an early primary, which took place before the pandemic began in earnest. The state responded to the pandemic by halving the number of signatures required on an absentee ballot, from two to one.
Any voter can request an absentee ballot in North Carolina, and people who choose to vote early can register the day of. The state mails out absentee ballots earlier than any other, while voters can choose to either mail the ballot back or drop it off in person. Precincts can begin counting ballots two weeks before Election Day, as well.
But the state still faces serious challenges come November. The deadline to request ballots is a week before the election — a short turnaround time — though the state will accept ballots up to three days after the election if they were postmarked by Election Day. The new law mandating that only close relatives can help others vote threatens to cut off access for the old and people with a disability. Meanwhile, a federal judge already rejected one lawsuit aiming to loosen absentee ballot restrictions, but did so with the proviso that the state must allow voters a chance to fix potential errors. Overall, the state faces a deluge of absentee ballots, with one informed political observer forecasting more than 1 million absentee votes cast in North Carolina this fall based on current request statistics, a number that could overwhelm local election precincts which have never grappled before with so high a volume.
In 2016, the vast majority of Nevadans voted early and in-person, setting the state apart. During the primary elections earlier this summer the vast majority voted by mail — aided by the state’s decision to send every active registered voter in the state a ballot to help contend with the pandemic. (The state’s largest county, Clark, also sent ballots to inactive registered voters.)
The subsequent passage of COVID-19-related voting legislation this month — known as AB4 — codified the practice of sending ballots to all registered active voters in emergencies, such as the pandemic. The law attracted a lawsuit from the Trump campaign.
The Nevada Independent has a good rundown of AB4: Among other things, it mandates at least one early and day-of polling place per county, and much more than that in Nevada’s two largest counties. It also loosens existing rules to allow voters to authorize someone else to submit their ballot for them. Republicans, including Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, have taken to calling that policy “ballot harvesting,” a term Democrats have pointed out has negative connotations.
The law also sets healthy deadlines by which the state must mail voters their ballot: 20 days for in-state voters, 40 days for out-of-state voters, and 45 days for military and overseas voters. In other words: enough time to fill it out and either mail it back or drop it off before Election Day. And even then, voters have some cushion: Ballots postmarked by Election Day can be legally received by election officials up to seven days later. The U.S. Postal Service’s general counsel last month warned 46 states and Washington, D.C. that their timetables for mail-in ballots risked disenfranchising voters: Nevada was an exception.
“Nevada ran an all-mail ballot state primary earlier this year,” observed Michael McDonald, a professor specializing in elections at the University of Florida. “There were no complaints about fraud. They got this.” Though Hillary Clinton won Nevada by 2 points, and though Joe Biden is polling well there now, there’s a reason the Republicans have litigated so fiercely in the state: It would be a prize for Donald Trump, and it may well be a crucial swing state this November.
The state of Tennessee has spent months kicking and screaming, in court, over who exactly ought to qualify to receive an absentee ballot. Just this week, a state judge ruled that Tennessee must make clear on absentee ballot applications that voters with underlying health conditions — including those that place them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 — do qualify to skip the polling place and use the mail instead, The Tennessean reported. Importantly, that determination is up to voters, and it also applies to the caretakers of those with health conditions that make them especially susceptible to the virus.
But voter suppression runs deep in Tennessee: First-time voters, even now, must present proof of their identities in-person to election officials, and they must vote in person their first time as well. Third-party groups are prohibited from distributing absentee ballot applications. Residents with past felony convictions must first, among other things, repay all court fees and child support before they can regain their voting rights. And Tennessee’s absentee ballot application now features, of all things, an ominous reward notice, “of up to $1,000 if you make a report of voter fraud that leads to a conviction.”
“Tennessee works harder to suppress the vote of eligible voters than to support Tennesseans’ right to exercise their franchise,” Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the Tennessee ACLU, told TPM.
A record number of Tennesseans voted absentee in the state’s primary elections earlier this month, nearly doubling previous general election records — though in the primary, any registered voter was allowed to vote by mail. The state’s Supreme Court struck down that expansion earlier this month.
Currently, applications for absentee ballots must be received by election officials “no later than seven (7) days before the election.” That earned Tennessee, like 45 other states, a warning from the USPS that the tight turnaround time — during which a ballot must reach the voter and return to election officials — could end up disenfranchising voters. Tennesseans are also required to mail their ballots back, unlike in other states where voters can hand-deliver the ballot.
Tennessee voters can also vote early, from Oct. 14-29 (though local schedules vary). For day-of voters, concerns from past elections years over the state’s restrictive voter ID law remain, as do fresh worries about a new law threatening felony charges against certain protesters, which could, in turn, strip them of their voting rights.
The presidential race is lopsided in Trump’s favor in the state, but there’ll be an open Senate seat on the ballot, currently belonging to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who’s retiring this year. Running against Trump-endorsed Republican Bill Hagerty, Marquita Bradshaw faces an uphill battle to be Tennessee’s first Democratic senator in this century.
Update: This post has been updated to clarify Alabama’s procedures for voting in-person with an absentee ballot, and to clarify the deadlines for delivery of mail-in ballots in Nevada.
Correction: This post initially stated that Republicans enjoyed a supermajority in the North Carolina state legislature. They have a majority, but not a supermajority. TPM regrets the error.