Tennessee prepares for early voting amid COVID-19 pandemic

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WASHINGTON & UNICOI, Tenn. (WJHL) – We are now exactly three weeks away from the November election, and for Virginians, the last day to register to vote in the election was Tuesday.

Early voting is already underway in Virginia, and it begins in Tennessee on Wednesday.

From masks to gloves, hand sanitizer to Q-tips, election commission offices in Northeast Tennessee are preparing voting locations to keep voters and poll officials safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Washington County Election Commission officials will be keeping a close eye on crowds at each early voting location.

“If the voting is as heavy as we think it’s going to be then they probably will be waiting outside,” Washington County, Tennessee Election Administrator Maybell Stewart said.

The Washington County Election Commission has mailed out more than 4,800 absentee ballots, but is still expecting a large voter turnout.

“We will be doing social distancing. Our poll officials will be wearing masks. They may be wearing face shields, gloves and we request the voters to wear masks. That’s their decision,” Stewart said.

Hygiene products will be given to each early voter.

“We have hand sanitizer available, sanitizing wipes. We’ll be using gloves for the voting machines or a cotton swab — whichever the voter prefers,” Stewart said. “Anyone that wants to bring their own pen and not use ours is encouraged to do that.

Voters will be expected to follow the 6-feet apart guidelines, but if some locations seem crowded, county election administrator, Maybell Stewart advises to pick a different location.

“Princeton [Arts Center] is a smaller early voting center. Princeton, but we do practice the social distancing there as well. We will have the same precautions: hand sanitizer,” Stewart said. “Also, anyone that doesn’t feel safe going to the Princeton Arts Center, can come to Jonesborough at the old Ace Hardware,” Stewart said.

Unicoi County, where 450 absentee ballots have been mailed out, will have its voting site only at the election commission office.

“We have six voting machines that we’ll be running at any one given time. Those are all spaced out to where so that we could have six voters at the voting machines,” Unicoi County Election Administrator Sarah Fain said. “Of course, if a couple or a family group comes in, they’re going to be allowed to stay together.”

Fain explained that as soon as voters are finished, they will be asked to promptly exit to limit crowd size.

“We’re definitely expecting a big turnout, “Fain said. “One addition we’re going to have at the polling places, we do have sneeze guards now, which will be a physical barrier between the voter and the poll book registrar, where they fill out the application for ballot.

Fain told Kassahun that her hope is to make the voters feel comfortable with voting in-person, amid the pandemic.

Fain said: “I do want to encourage them to feel confident that we’re doing everything we can. The second week of early voting, sometimes is a little bit slower. We get a huge crowd the first couple of days, and then of course, if you wait until the last minute, it’s going to be pretty crowded. So, if you can try to come maybe in the middle week, sometimes the lines aren’t quite so long.”

Both Washington County and Unicoi County request that voters wear a mask when entering their respective polling locations.

Early voting in Tennessee runs through October 29.

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