Ballot Basics: Voting Absentee and Lessons from August

By , Daily Memphian Updated: October 15, 2020 8:15 AM CT | Published: October 14, 2020 6:36 PM CT

Early voting in the presidential general election is underway in Shelby County. But there is still time, though not much, to apply to vote absentee by a hand-marked mail-in ballot.

Here are the basics of applying for an absentee ballot, voting absentee and what happens to absentee ballots once they are cast – all in the presidential general election.

Absentee ballots are paper ballots you receive in the mail that include the district races particular to where you live as well as the presidential general election, the statewide race for the U.S. Senate and suburban municipal elections.

You mark the ballots by hand in blue or black ink only and send them back to the Shelby County Election Commission by mail.


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You get the absentee ballot by submitting an application. Election officials check to see if you are on voter rolls just as they do when you show up in person for early voting or on election day.

Here is the Shelby County Election Commission application to vote absentee. And here is the state’s application. You can also call 222-1200 to get an application sent to you by other means.

When you apply, you should get a return email saying your application has been received.

The deadline to apply to vote absentee is Oct. 27

All of that can sound deceptively simple, as some voters learned in the August elections.

What makes this more complex is the process depends in large part on the U.S. Postal Service to meet deadlines in state law that cannot be met just by having a postmark with the proper date on it.

Your absentee ballot must be in the hands of the Shelby County Election Commission by 7 p.m. on election day, which is Nov. 3. And it must be delivered either by mail or a private carrier such as UPS or FedEx.

You cannot drop off your completed ballot in person at the election commission. That is specifically forbidden by Tennessee law, which also forbids drop-off boxes specifically for such ballots that are allowed in other states.

More people are considering voting absentee because of the COVID-19 pandemic and an expansion in the criteria for being allowed to vote absentee that has changed between the last election and the current election.

There are 11 legal reasons for voting absentee in Tennessee. On the application you check one reason. Among the reasons are two allowances due to the pandemic which has become more specific since the August elections by a ruling of the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Here is the wording on the form currently:

“I am hospitalized, ill or physically disabled and unable to appear at my polling place to vote (this includes persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which in their determination render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it).”

“I am a caretaker of a hospitalized, ill or physically disabled person (this includes voters who care for or reside with persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which in their determination render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it.)”


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Lessons learned from the Aug. 6 elections

The biggest lesson is that you should be able to mail a ballot within Shelby County to the election commission and have it arrive for review and counting in a couple of days at the most.

But that’s not what happened for too many voters in the August elections. Some got notices weeks after election day that their absentee ballots had arrived but too late to be counted.


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So Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips is recommending that voters not wait until the Oct. 27 deadline – a week from election day -- to apply for an absentee ballot because by the time you get a blank ballot, complete it and send it in, it will probably be too late.

She recommends requesting the ballot now, then completing the ballot and mailing it back the same day it is received in the mail.

The election commission is processing ballot requests the same day they are received. Therefore, a request for a ballot that is granted goes in the mail to the voter the next day.

If you submit an application to vote absentee and then show up to vote in person during early voting or on election day, you could be allowed to vote but by a provisional ballot. Election officials will check later to see if you voted absentee already. That check also involves a bipartisan group of examiners.

More than 100 would-be absentee voters did this in the August elections because of the uncertainties around postal deliveries.

There is a way to track the path of your completed absentee ballot but it starts with its arrival at the election commission if you use the USPS. Here is the tracking tool from the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office. There is a lag in updating the status.

Do not detach the flap on the inner envelope you get. It is the voter affidavit that is a crucial part of your absentee ballot being judged valid and part of the election totals.

Sign it. If you don’t, it is rejected. And that is a common mistake – pandemic or not.

If you are part of an absentee voting couple or family, make sure you are signing your affidavit and using the envelope with your name on it.

Do not put multiple absentee ballots into one envelope.

Each absentee ballot must be in its proper envelope and only that ballot should be in that envelope. So before you seal everything up, make sure the name on all of the paperwork matches your name and your signature.

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Ballot Basics absentee voting
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

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


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