Absentee ballot requests increasing across Northeast Tennessee due to COVID-19 concerns

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(WJHL) — Northeast Tennessee counties have seen an increase in absentee ballot requests, due to concerns of spreading or contracting COVID-19.

Pheben Kassahun explains how these early numbers will effect the upcoming elections in August and in November.

Unicoi County Administrator for Elections Sarah Fain told Kassahun the county has seen a 75% increase in absentee ballots for the August primary. The office plans to make adjustments like extending work hours to tend to the anticipated influx ballots.

“In a typical August primary, this time, we probably would have received about 25-25 requests. Right now, we’ve processed over 100,” Fain said.

SEE ALSO: Court rules Tennessee in violation of order requiring absentee ballots for all eligible voters

“In Tennessee, people have always been able to vote by mail but they’ve needed a legal reason and generally, that is because they’re disabled or over 60. For this election, there was a court decision out of Davidson County that has expanded it to also allow people who are concerned with the COVID-19 crisis or caretakers of people who are concerned about it,” Fain said.

While the number of absentee ballots requests has increased, Fain said the county is prepared to accommodate to voters.

“Typically, our counting board hasn’t come in until 4 o’clock on Election Day, and right now, we’re planning on them starting at 8 a.m. So, that’s going to give them pretty much a full day to work on counting ballots, processing ballots. We’re also adding an additional person to just kind of as an assistant,” Fain said.

Unicoi County is among other counties in Northeast Tennessee seeing an increase in absentee ballots. Here is a list of Northeast Tennessee counties, including Unicoi.

  • Washington County reports more than 1,000 absentee ballot requests, doubling the amount from the 2018 August Primary.
  • Carter County reports had 400 absentee ballot requests, which is a slight increase.
  • Unicoi County reports had about 100, which is a 75% increase.
  • Hawkins County reports more doubling its numbers as well.

*Greene, Johnson and Sullivan Counties have not reported theirs.

“There’s still time for people to do that if they’re interested, but of course, anyone who wants to vote in person can always do that. We’ll still have early voting the same hours we typically have and then on Election Day,” Fain said.

Johnson City resident Isaac Kovalick plans to vote absentee.

“Number one, it’s easier. Number two, it’s safer. I don’t have to be around a lot of people. I can do it from my house. It’s just a better option,” Johnson City resident Isaac Kovalick said. “There’s no interaction. There’s no touching things that other people have touched.”

Hawkins County is also seeing an increase but plans to keep the same amount of staff for now.

Hawkins County Administrator of Elections Crystal Rogers said, “We’re seeing about 100 more than we normally do at this point. We’re expecting this number to continually go up.”

Rogers wants voters to understand there could be a delay in voter lines as they try to practice safety measures.

“My workers will be wearing face masks or face shields,” Rogers said. “Putting together voter kits, where each voter will have their own ink pen and glove, that way they can go through, sign what they need to sign and then vote on the machine with the glove.”

Fain said a lot of safety measures are taken to ensure votes are secure via absentee ballots.

“We’ve got some barriers up to help protect both our workers and the voters. If people are concerned about voting by mail, it’s a very, very secure way to vote. We check every signature,” Fain said. “When we get your request and when we get your ballot, we’re going to be making a visual comparison of your signature.”

The deadline to request an absentee ballot in the State of Tennessee for the August election is Thursday, July 30.

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