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"Don't wait" | Absentee voters urged to mail their ballots as soon as possible

Voters still have time to both request an absentee ballot and mail in the one you have, but election officials urge you not to wait until the last minute.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Election Day is three weeks away. However, people voting by mail this year may still be wondering when to mail in their ballots.

The short answer is also the simplest — mail it in right now.

That's in part because of uncertainties related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has more people voting by mail than ever before.

In Tennessee, voters need to have one of these reasons to request an absentee ballot:

  • Age 60 or older
  • Hospitalized, ill or disabled
  • Caretaker of someone hospitalized, ill or disabled
  • Outside of the county on Election Day
  • Full-time out-of-state student
  • Out-of-county nursing home resident
  • Candidate running for office
  • Observing religious holiday
  • Election commission worker
  • Serving jury duty
  • Disabled with an inaccessible polling place
  • Commercial truck driver working
  • Military or living overseas
  • On permanent absentee list

New this year, having an underlying health condition that could make you susceptible to COVID-19 counts as a reason to mail in your vote. 

But if you want to vote by mail, you've got to get a move on now.

"Give yourself a couple of weeks. And so we're telling people, if you want an absentee ballot, that's great. Just go ahead and request it now," said Chris Davis, Knox County Election Administrator.

People need to request a ballot and their counties will send them one. Then, voters must mail it back.

In a statement, the U.S. Postal Service said it "is committed to delivering Election Mail in a timely manner."

But you have to do all the steps to mail it first.

"Don't wait until October 15 or October 20," said Davis. "You can legally do that. But you're pushing your luck with the mail service and just trying to get everything done."

If the envelope arrives after polls close, it won't count.

Voters can also be sure their vote counts with Tennessee's new online ballot tracker.

"People can be rest assured that if their ballot has been received, it's most likely going to coun," he said.

People just need to follow the instructions closely and make sure to sign the ballot. They should also act as quickly as possible if they're going to make it to the polls early or on Election Day.

Sometimes the mail has a mind of its own.

When people send in their absentee ballots this fall, they're not just coming in from across Tennessee but all over the U.S.

How long will it really take for those ballots to get here?

To find out, 10News reporters Shannon Smith and Cole Sullivan put the U.S. Postal Service to the test.

They exchanged letters with different news reporters in eight states and 10 cities.

All letters were sent on the same day so everyone could all track how long it takes them to arrive.

For a variety of locations, letters were exchanged between reporters in Columbia, SC, Louisville, KY, Jacksonville Beach, FL, Columbus, OH, Houston, TX, Memphis, TN, Beaumont, TX, Washington, D.C., Charlotte, NC and San Angelo, TX.

Credit: WBIR
10News sent letters to 10 other news reporters to track how long it takes to mail standard letters to and from different parts of the country.

In that experiment, it took 2 - 4 days for our letters to reach those 10 cities and vice versa.

Letters from Columbia, Charlotte, Louisville, and Columbus got to Knoxville in two days. Mail from Houston, Beaumont, San Angelo, Jacksonville Beach and Memphis got here in three days. Washington, D.C., was last at four days.

As more ballots hit the mail in coming weeks, those arrival times could change. The mail can be unpredictable and so, election officials said not to wait any longer.

If you have your ballot, mail it in now to make sure your vote is counted.

For those who still want to request an absentee ballot, submit your form no later than October 27.

Early voting in Tennessee runs through October 29.

Election day is November 3.