Election 2020

Early voting opens in first Shelby County election during pandemic

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 20, 2020 3:29 PM CT | Published: July 17, 2020 4:00 AM CT
<strong>The 14-day early-voting period begans Friday, July 17, across Shelby County. On the ballot are state and federal primaries &ndash; U.S. House, U.S. Senate and Tennessee Legislature &ndash; and county general elections for general sessions court clerk and Shelby County Schools board races.</strong> (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian file)&nbsp;

The 14-day early-voting period begans Friday, July 17, across Shelby County. On the ballot are state and federal primaries – U.S. House, U.S. Senate and Tennessee Legislature – and county general elections for general sessions court clerk and Shelby County Schools board races. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian file) 

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles about all the races on the ballot as the July 17-Aug. 1 early voting period for the Aug. 6 election begins.

The first election in Shelby County during the global COVID-19 pandemic gets underway Friday, July 17, with the start of the 14-day early-voting period in advance of the Aug. 6 election day.

While candidates and politicos will be watching the turnout at the 26 early-voting sites across Shelby County, they also will be paying attention to what will almost certainly be a much larger than normal absentee voter turnout.

On the ballot are state and federal primaries – U.S. House, U.S. Senate and Tennessee Legislature – and county general elections for general sessions court clerk and Shelby County Schools board races.

The primary winners advance to the Nov. 3 ballot topped by the presidential general election – the most popular election cycle in Shelby County politics by voter turnout.

Early voters will find a different voting experience at the 26 sites across the county. The Shelby County Election Commission’s plans to have a new voting system in place for this election have been delayed. But the polling places will include numerous social-distancing precautions, from face shields for election workers to acrylic barriers at the voter sign-in table and six-foot social distancing.

“I want to reassure voters we are taking enormous precautions for their public safety,” Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips said Thursday, adding that the precautions include “gallons and gallons and gallons” of hand sanitizer.

“We are encouraging voters to wear masks and comply with the (Memphis) ordinance,” she said. “We will have some masks available if voters don’t have them.”

Normally, absentee vote turnout is combined with early voting totals.

But concerns about the pandemic and a court ruling that allows those concerns to be a valid reason for requesting an absentee ballot have spiked the totals of Shelby Countians seeking one of the hand-marked mail-in ballots from the election commission.

Through Wednesday, the election commission had more than 13,000 absentee ballot applications.

Phillips said the first batch of absentee ballots will be in the mail next Tuesday or Wednesday.

Absentee votes in most local election cycles account for 1,000 to 2,000 ballots at the most.

Early voting sites are set, with one change

No new election machines in August balloting

State election officials originally declined to allow voters citing the risks of the virus to seek absentee ballots. A Nashville Chancery Court ruling ordered the state to add a box to the form citing the virus as a valid reason for requesting an absentee ballot.

Earlier this week, the same court left in place the state law that requires first-time voters in Tennessee to vote in person and makes them ineligible for absentee balloting.

Chancellor denies push for state to let first-timers vote by mail

The pandemic has limited campaigning locally, with candidates sticking to virtual fundraisers and online gatherings and very few in-person events.

Door-to-door campaigning has been almost nonexistent in a departure from a regular feature of summer elections in Memphis that test the physical stamina as well as the electoral appeal of those on the ballot.

The early vote in 2016 for the same election cycle – state and federal primary elections and county general election contests – was 43,543 without absentee ballots. Through the early voting period, 369 absentee ballots were turned in but the absentee voting period continues to election day.

August ballot includes some surprise races

Just the early voting turnout before election day accounted for more than half of the total turnout of 83,308, or 15% of the county’s 555,856 voters.

By primary, total Democratic turnout – absentee, early and election day – was 47,089 compared to 35,392 in the Republican primary. The remainder voted only the general election ballot of Shelby County Schools board races, two special elections for appointments to local judicial vacancies, statewide retention races for state appellate courts and the countywide race for General Sessions Court Clerk.

Boyd and Brown battle for General Sessions Court Clerk

The ballot four years ago in Shelby County featured open primaries for the 8th Congressional District seat to which Republican Stephen Fincher opted not to seek re-election.

The 13-candidate field was running in a district that takes in parts of Memphis and Shelby County and 14 counties in rural West Tennessee.

This year, the open races on the ballot are the Republican and Democratic statewide primaries for the U.S. Senate seat Lamar Alexander, a Republican, leaves at the end of 2020.

Turnout was a bit higher in the 2012 version of the election cycle at 22.7% when all of the votes were counted.

A total of 434 absentee ballots were cast during the early voting period along with an early voting turnout of 62,127 that was less than half of the total turnout of 132,882.

Shelby County Schools board races feature a majority of positions

The August 2012 ballot was a busy one compared to this year. It was topped by Republican Bob Corker’s final re-election bid and state legislative primaries by the district lines drawn by the Republican supermajorities in the Tennessee Legislature earlier that put several Shelby County Democratic incumbents in the same districts.

There was also a special county-wide election for District Attorney General and the last appearance of the race for Shelby County Assessor in the election cycle. After 2012, it was moved to the other even-year cycle with all of the other countywide offices.

There were also referendums in the six suburban towns and cities for the formation of their own public school districts. 

The 2012 ballot also featured the first and only elections for the seven-seat Shelby County Schools board that would expand to a nine-member board after the demerger of public education in the county.

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


early voting 2020 Election COVID-19 pandemic

Bill Dries on demand

Never miss an article. Sign up to receive Bill Dries' stories as they’re published.

Enter your e-mail address

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.


Want to comment on our stories? Or read the comments of others? Join the conversation by subscribing now. Only subscribers can view or add comments. Our commenting policy can be viewed here