Absentee votes will complicate election night returns

By , Daily Memphian Updated: October 17, 2020 11:17 AM CT | Published: October 16, 2020 6:44 PM CT

Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips says given current conditions, the public should see the county’s unofficial election results completed around midnight Nov. 3.

“It’s kind of hard to say for sure. I wouldn’t look for them at 7:01,” Phillips said on The Daily Memphian Politics Podcast, referring to the 7 p.m. closing of polls that evening. “But I do hope that perhaps we can have everything at midnight.”

<strong>Linda Phillips</strong>

Linda Phillips

For a variety of reasons, numerous cities and states across the nation are saying it could take days in some cases to complete the vote counts in the presidential general election. The reasons range from increased voter turnout to larger use of absentee ballots in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Complicating that locally will be the count of a larger-than-expected absentee vote count with more than 20,000 of the mail-in ballots requested as of this week and another week and a half for voters to continue to request them.

More than 16,000 absentee ballots were cast and counted in Shelby County in the August elections.

Ballot Basics: Voting Absentee and Lessons from August

The absentee process isn’t as simple as tallying the vote bubbles filled in beside the names of candidates. It is a complex process that involves a review of the ballots by a team of two judges or election officials — one Democrat and one Republican for each ballot after it is scanned.

At the moment, Phillips’ plan is to have 100 teams with 200 people total at FedExForum to allow for adequate social distancing and other pandemic precautions.

“It’s very, very easy if you are not extremely careful in processing absentee ballots to count a batch twice or skip counting a batch,” she said. “That’s why we have a very rigid, very detailed process with a lot of checks and balances in it. And that takes a large number of people divided into bipartisan teams to do this.”

Federal appeals court upholds signature verification law for absentee ballots

The plan is to count the bulk of absentee ballots at the arena, which was offered to the Election Commission by the Memphis Grizzlies front office for use that night.

The complication is the Shelby County Commission voted down a $5.8 million contract Monday for a new voting system to go online in 2022. Within the contract was money for new ballot scanners that Phillips planned to use in the presidential general election to swing two locations.

They would have augmented new high-speed scanners election officials used in August that were instrumental in a quicker unofficial vote count in Shelby County that election night.

Absentee ballot anxiety weighed and sorted in election aftermath

With scanners at the election operations center and at FedExForum, Phillips planned to have the signatures on the ballots checked at the operations center and complete the process with the two-person bipartisan teams at the Forum.

“But now I either have to leave one of the high-speed scanners at the operations center or else we have to take the ballots to FedExForum,” Phillips said. “Either approach is going to slow down processing.”

The absentee ballot count begins while the polls are open on election day — going through those turned in before Election Day.

Post Office supporters stage all-night vigil

Phillips expects the first election day delivery or dump from the U.S. Postal Service of absentee ballots around 11:30 a.m. and there could be a last delivery that comes in just a few minutes before the 7 p.m. closing of polls, which is also the deadline for absentee ballots to be in the hands of election officials.

If the first dump on Election Day is about 3,000 absentee ballots, Phillips says it could take until early evening to check the signatures on all of those ballots.

“Depending on how many come in at the very last minute, it could delay results for a considerable amount of time, if we have to process them and (physically) take them to FedExForum to count them.”

The dilemma is the operations center doesn’t have enough room for proper social distancing with 100 teams of two people each. As a result, Phillips said she hasn’t made a definite decision yet on using FedExForum and that it will depend on what kind of ongoing demand there is for absentee ballots.

Nearly 27,000 cast ballots in bold opening day of early vote

The deadline to request the mail-in ballots is Oct. 27. But Phillips said given problems some Shelby County voters in the August election had with the U.S. Postal Service getting those ballots to voters and then back to the Election Commission, Oct. 20 — two weeks before Election Day — is probably the realistic limit for guaranteeing the vote will get back in time for it to be counted.

“If they wait until the 27th, we’ll mail it out very quickly,” she said. “But the voter is probably going to have to send it back via some express service.”

By state law, absentee voters cannot hand deliver their completed ballot to the Election Commission or officials at polling places. The ballot must be mailed or sent via FedEx or some other delivery service. There are no dropoff boxes permitted for absentee ballots in Tennessee as there are in other states.


Produced by Natalie Van Gundy

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Here is coverage by The Daily Memphian of some of the stories featured in the Top of the Podcast segment:

Police reform discussion focuses on questions of what is real change

County Commission Scorecard: Police reform bundle, voting machine contract

Why Cameron Pryor remained free before fateful Kroger carjacking

Lee possibly exposed to COVID virus, in quarantine

Nearly 27,000 cast ballots in bold opening day of early vote

DA Weirich asks MPD to refer all excessive force findings for criminal review; MPD hasn’t agreed

Early voting opens with expectation of large turnout for presidential general election

Here is The Daily Memphian’s coverage of races on the Nov. 3 ballot:

School vouchers are an issue in legislative races

Collierville Confederate marker draws mixed reactions from candidates

2 candidates seeking elected office for first time in Bartlett race




Lakeland officials disagree on reason for canceled meeting

Six seeking Alderman Position 4; runoff likely

Suburban down-ballot races are competitive

Booker, Swan challenging Worley for Collierville Alderman Position 3

Frazier challenges incumbent Stamps for Alderman Position 5 in Collierville

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our election coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do


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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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