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'Complicated and messy' | Voters filing for absentee ballots as decision is challenged in court

A Nashville chancellor ruled all registered Tennesseans should have the option to vote by mail this fall. The Tennessee Attorney General disagrees.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — University of Tennessee law student Hannah Benjamin won't let a pandemic stop her from voting.

"Voting is really important for me," she said. "I used to work at the state legislature and a lot of the down ballot races like that really make a difference."

Because of COVID-19, she's not sure what August will be like. When Nashville Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled Tennessee must offer a vote-by-mail option to all 4.1 million registered voters this fall, Benjamin decided to request an absentee ballot.

"[The Knox County Election Commission] posted a new form that had a box specifically for Coronavirus to check," Benjamin said. "So I filled that out. I emailed it in. It was really easy."

She said the election commission called her to verify information on her application, cautioning that the decision could be overturned.

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery has said he would appeal Chancellor Lyle's decision, saying "it failed to appropriately consider the extensive safety measures of the COVID-19 election plan." 

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Benjamin understood, but wanted to know what that would mean for her vote.

"They told me if I've already mailed it, maybe I could file a provisional ballot which usually aren't counted until the days following the election," she said. "And they said there also might be charges involving voter fraud for voting twice."

Benjamin is familiar with election rules and laws. She worked for the Democratic Party's Voter Protection Project in 2018 and said she wouldn't be charged with voter fraud because both ballots wouldn't actually count.

Still, she said it was a "strange and intimidating experience" that she wanted to warn others about.

Her tweet caught the attention of the lawyers advocating for the expansion of absentee ballots.

The Tennessee Secretary of State's Office told 10News those tweets are now "part of litigation before the court [Thursday]."

Because they do not comment on pending litigation, they were unable to tell us what would happen to her vote if the court overturned the COVID-19 provision after she mailed her ballot. 

"I'm still really confused about what's going to happen to it afterwards, if I need to just wait outside the courthouse until appeal comes through and find out if I'm still allowed to vote that way," Benjamin said. "It's just a very complicated and messy process for no reason."

Credit: WBIR
Most states offer mail-in voting as an option without a required excuse.

According to Ballotpedia, a non-profit research organization, most states offer an option to vote-by-mail without an excuse. Of the ones that typically require an excuse, most have made exceptions due to COVID-19.

Tennessee is currently included in that category.

Knox County Election Administrator Chris Davis said he cannot speak to specific voters or situations, but that they will not begin sending ballots out until the weekend of June 20. 

They will follow whatever guidance the Secretary of State's office gives them.

"Our protocol is to process the applications we receive and attempt to remedy any that are deficient," he wrote in an email to 10News. "We have received in excess of 4,400 absentee ballot requests as of June 9."

That is up 700 absentee ballot requests from June 2. The Knox County Election Commission said it receives applications by email, mail and fax. That application is on their website here.

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