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Strong mail-in ballot response boosts early voter turnout; absentee counting could go late into the night

More than 9,000 mail-in ballots had been received as of Monday morning. A little more than 15,000 people asked for a mail-in.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Buoyed by heavy absentee ballot turnout, Knox County saw more than 46,000 people cast early votes ahead of Thursday's county general and state and federal primaries.

More than 9,000 mail-in ballots had been received as of Monday morning, according to Knox County elections administrator Chris Davis. A little more than 15,000 people asked for a mail-in, meaning it's possible thousands more will be sent in by mail this week to the Knox County Election Commission.

Turnout this election appears a bit higher than what the county saw in August 2018, which featured a very competitive governor's primary. It's also much higher than August 2016, which saw 12,000 early votes and about 1,300 absentees, which is much closer to the typical request among the electorate.

Early voting ended Saturday.

Fears about being exposed to COVID-19 while voting in person are driving thousands more people to mail in a ballot this summer in East Tennessee and across the state.

According to the Tennessee Secretary of State's office, early voting in all its forms was up 108 percent this summer compared with 2016 -- 532,246 compared with 254,849 in 2016, figures show.

Knox, Loudon, Jefferson and Anderson were among the area counties seeing strong turnout compared with 2016, figures show.

Polls are open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday in Knox County.

It's possible that ballot counting will go late into the night, Davis said, because of the massive amount of mail-in ballots that must be counted. Ballots can be received by mail on Thursday itself.

"Will we get to 12,000, 13,000, 14,000 (mail-in ballots)?" Davis mused. "I don't know."

Normally, the commission would have eight to 10 people counting the ballots and they could be done election night.

For this Thursday, Davis is prepared to use 30-31 people.

With absentees so high, what the county is seeing is "unprecedented," he said.

Mail-in ballots involve a labor intensive process. Each returned envelope first must be scanned by bar code to check voting history. Once they're opened Thursday, they'll have to be checked to ensure the voter's intent is clear.

The ballot this summer features a competitive GOP race for U.S. Senate and several competitive state House primaries. Some county commission races also are in play.

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