Absentee ballot anxiety weighed and sorted in election aftermath

By , Daily Memphian Updated: August 08, 2020 12:32 PM CT | Published: August 07, 2020 5:38 PM CT

The Shelby County Election got 19,440 requests for absentee ballots in the August elections and logged 16,941 absentee ballots cast up to the Thursday, Aug. 6, closing of the polls.

The difference of 2,499 represents the anxiety about a way of voting that comes with inherent trust issues for voters accustomed to casting their ballots in person. And it’s an issue that could loom larger in the November election, which is expected to draw more voters.

“Did it get there on time? Was it counted? We don’t know,” said Kesha Whitaker, who was among those who applied to vote absentee along with her mother.

Nearly 21% turnout in Shelby County shows most voted early, absentee

“The only reason I signed up for absentee was because I didn’t know where we would be with COVID,” she said. “It could shut down again during early voting. We didn’t know.”

So she and her mother applied for absentee ballots in July.

“The only thing I received in the mail was a postcard saying they had received my application and that was maybe a few weeks after,” Whitaker said. “My Mom didn’t receive any notification. … She told me that she received her ballot in the mail but I had not received mine.”

So Whitaker decided to vote early, which meant filling out a provisional paper ballot that is among the ballots to be judged by bipartisan counting boards in the aftermath of the Thursday election day. The provisionals become part of the certified vote count the Shelby County Election Commission approves later this month.

<strong>Linda Phillips</strong>

Linda Phillips

She wasn’t the only voter to do so for that reason. Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips noted the phenomenon as early voting was underway.

The day after the election, she estimated there were about 450 provisional ballots to be judged and counted. It will take checking other records to determine how many cast those ballots after applying to vote absentee as opposed to other reasons for a provisional ballot including identification issues.

“I think some who had never voted absentee were disillusioned by the process because if you absolutely, positively want to make sure your vote counts, you need to mask up and come vote in person,” she said. “We took a lot of complaints from people who said, ‘My ballots were never delivered.’”

In the case of Whitaker, who is Community Outreach Coordinator for The Daily Memphian, her absentee ballot arrived a few days after she voted early.

And Phillips said the voter anxiety about the absentee process includes some very precise state laws that disqualified some ballots.

“There were ballots that came in that were rejected and never counted and we do not have that number yet,” she said Friday afternoon. “Tennessee law requires the teams to reject the ballot if there’s no affidavit or if the affidavit is missing. Those were rejected. I couldn’t tell you now how many that was, but it was well over a hundred.”

The affidavit is a detachable flap on the folded ballot that a voter must sign. It is separated from the ballot itself when it is counted to guarantee the secrecy of the ballot. Some voters signed the ballot itself, which caused those votes to be voided along with ballots that don’t come with an envelope or two ballots stuffed in one envelope.

Some rejected ballots include photocopies of an original.

Whitaker and her mother were among those who applied for absentee ballots because of general concerns about voting in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic, a reason allowed for the August elections by a court order that the Tennessee Supreme Court has since scaled back and qualified for the Nov. 3 election.

State Supreme Court OKs absentee August votes, but limits absentee for November

Phillips says most of those issued absentee ballots in Shelby County were those who would qualify for the usual reasons not connected to the pandemic.

“The vast majority of applications for this election were people over age 60,” she said. “The second largest category were people who were out of town.”

Earle Fisher, pastor of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church and co-founder of Up The Vote 901, voted in person early although he is the lead plaintiff in one of the two lawsuits that resulted in the Davidson County Chancery Court court order that expanded the reasons for voting absentee.

“You know that there are times with that process that you can’t monitor as closely as walking up to the ballot ....” he said. “And you are concerned about whether or not your vote will actually count. I felt that. I understood it. It’s part of the reason why I ultimately ended up going to vote in person despite the risk.”

But it wasn’t without some lingering concerns.

The risk of being exposed to the virus, he said, was “ridiculous for us to even have to consider.”

“People were at risk,” he said.

And Fisher is still upset that state election officials used election records showing he voted early to try to challenge his standing in the absentee lawsuit. Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins has said the information is a public record. Fisher says it is an abuse of authority.

Memphis attorney accuses state official of leaking information about absentee ballot plaintiffs

But he is pleased with the unusually high turnout for absentee voting, a process to which he is convinced the lawsuit called attention.

“Can you imagine what that would look like if only half of these people said I’m not going to participate because I don’t feel safe and this (in-person voting) is the only option,” he said. “You would have lost 8,000 votes. … In many cases, this lawsuit may very well have helped to determine the outcomes of some of the elections.”

Phillips had new digital scanners to replace older and much less reliable scanners used in past elections for absentee ballots that she believes would have broken down as they had in past elections with far fewer of the ballots.

Most of the ballots on hand just before the closing of the polls Thursday evening had been counted when a last mail run arrived as the polls closed pushing the count completion to an hour and 15 minutes after the polls closed.

Some ballots arrived by private carriers like FedEx and UPS. But she said that’s a fairly small percentage of the total.

“The weak link is consigning it to the mail stream,” Phillips said of the breakdown in the absentee process.

Hargett draws fire in U.S. Senate committee on state’s resistance to expanded absentee voting

Tennessee state law forbids voters from dropping off their ballots directly to the election commission.

Fisher is among advocates of drop boxes specifically for such ballots as are used in some cities that have mail-in voting as their main election system. That would require a change in Tennessee law.

Phillips says it’s not as simple as putting a metal box on a busy street corner. The boxes have to be monitored with some kind of security system, possibly surveillance cameras.

“And they need fire suppression because there are idiots that will toss lighted matches into ballot boxes,” she said. “I’d like to see them inside. It would not be unreasonable to have drop boxes in some locations that were inside where they could be monitored. Libraries come to mind – college campuses.”

Phillips says those kinds of changes are unlikely before the November ballot and its expected turnout of a majority of the county’s voters. And she said changes to the rules for absentee voting that expand it only to those with specific underlying medical conditions or who are caregivers will probably keep the number of absentee ballots manageable.

Whitaker says she hopes there is better communication next time.

“Some type of voter education,” she said.

Fisher says election officials are “convoluting” the process.

“Things could have been much better, but we are constantly met with resistance,” he said, “from the electoral apparatus at the state level and at the county level.”


2020 Election Absentee ballots Shelby County Election Commission Linda Phillips Earle Fisher

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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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