Democrats urge Gov. Lee, election officials to make voter health a priority

Tennesseans should not have to choose between their health and casting a vote this year, Democrats in the Senate say.

An April 27 letter, co-signed by each member of the Senate Democratic Caucus, is urging Gov. Bill Lee and Secretary of State Tre Hargett, the state’s top election official, to develop a statewide plan to protect voters from coronavirus.

Democrats are advocating for at least three measures to protect the health of voters and reduce crowd sizes on Election Day: absentee voting by mail for any voter who wants to; expanded early voting options, including additional days, locations and hours; and require voting precincts to be approved by county health officials.

“Administering fair, accessible elections during a pandemic is new territory. But we do not have to choose between public health and a functioning democracy,” the caucus wrote. “We have the resources, ability and time to ensure everyone can register, cast a ballot and have their votes counted, without compromising their health.”

In-person early voting for the August state primary is scheduled to begin across the state on July 17.

Democrats pointed to the state of Wisconsin, which conducted in-person elections in early April, as a reason Tennessee should move forward with additional health safeguards like ‘no excuse’ absentee voting by mail. On April 24, health officials there reported 40 people in Milwaukee County alone contracted coronavirus as a result of participating in the election.

Currently, 34 states and Washington, D.C. either require or allow voters to cast a ballot by mail with no excuse. Tennessee only allows voting by mail if a voter satisfies one of 14 reasons—none of which would apply to otherwise healthy voters who only want to avoid crowds that may be carrying Covid-19.

The senators also took issue with local election commissions that are planning to consolidate voting precincts, as was reported in Shelby County.

“The exact opposite of social distancing in elections is precinct consolidation. Combining polling locations, at face value, reduces access to voting AND increases the number of voters in a single place,” the letter stated. “If promoting physical distance and reducing the spread of a highly contagious virus are our shared goals, the state should be providing science-based guidance to local election officials against any counterproductive measures.”

To eliminate decisions to promote voter health being made by untrained election officials, Democrats suggested that local health departments should review and approve every voting precinct.

“To show voters our commitment to their health and safety, state election officials, in conjunction with the governor’s office, should require that every voting precinct be reviewed and approved by a local or regional health department,” Democrats said. “Health department officials should direct election commissions on the appropriateness of precinct venues, setup and additional measures to prevent virus transmission.”