The COVID Effect on Voting

The COVID Effect on Voting

Concerns about the pandemic have helped fuel record levels for early and absentee voting during this year’s election.

by scott barker • October 30, 2020
Campaign signs outside the early voting location at New Harvest Park.

A contentious presidential election and the coronavirus pandemic combined to motivate Knox County to smash early and absentee balloting voting records during the past two weeks.

Absentee votes have more than tripled the 2016 total, with ballots still arriving at the Knox County Election Commission.

According to the Knox County Election Commission, 171,592 people — and counting — have voted in advance of Election Day on Nov. 3.

The 14-day early voting period ended last night with 153,197 votes cast at 11 locations across the county. About 14,700 voters cast ballots in each of the last four days.

The Knox County Election Commission has received 18,395 absentee ballots so far and could receive many more before Tuesday. 

“It’s unprecedented,” Knox County Election Administrator Chris Davis said on Thursday. “It’s not just that it exceeded what we’ve done before, it destroyed it.”

In 2016, the presidential election contest between President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton drew 133,723 Knox County voters to the polls during early voting and 5,124 absentee ballots.

This year’s totals dwarf 2016’s numbers. 

The number of absentee ballots returned so far is more than triple the 2016 count. The last of the roughly 20,000 requested mail-in ballots went out this week, Davis said, after Tuesday’s application deadline. That means about 1,600 could be returned between now and Tuesday.

The early voting total this year marks a 14.6 percent increase over the number of people who voted early in the 2016 presidential election. A total of 184,923 Knox County voters cast ballots in 2016, so the tally of this year’s early and absentee ballots is just 13,331 voters short of the cumulative 2016 count. 

After Election Day, the turnout will almost certainly surpass the number of voters in 2016. Davis said that a check earlier this week found about 24,000 currently active voters of the nearly 43,000 who went to the polls on Election Day in 2016 have yet to cast ballots this year.

Whether that means that means Election Day turnout will be light or voter participation will soar to even loftier heights is unknown, but Davis is counting on the latter.

“I think about 25,000 is your floor. How high it will go, I don’t know,” he said.

An Election Day turnout of 25,000 or more would push this year’s total above 196,000.

Pandemic Shifts

The global pandemic has changed voting patterns in many ways. 

Voters who did not want to risk the confined spaces of many precincts on Election Day combined with the social distancing enforced at early voting totals resulted in long lines. 

The state is allowing each county to designate a place for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 but who haven’t voted yet to cast ballots on Election Day. Davis said his office will finalize plans for Knox County’s location over the weekend. Tennessee does not allow curbside voting, so it will probably be a tent or other outdoor area, he said.

State election officials also are allowing each county to have one post office branch that will accept absentee ballots on Election Day — provided the envelopes have the required postage. 

In Knox County, people can drop off absentee ballots until 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Downtown Post Office, 501 W. Main Street. They can also opt to send ballots to the Election Commission through FedEx or UPS, as long as they are delivered by Election Day.

The volume of absentee ballots prompted Davis to hire 20 additional workers to help count the ballots, which under Tennessee law cannot occur until the polls open on Election Day. 

A team of 50 election workers — roughly split evenly between Republicans and Democrats — will process the ballots, which will be scanned and not counted by hand. Bipartisan teams will examine any ballots rejected by the scanners.

Election workers were able to count the more than 10,000 absentee ballots cast in the August primary, but they could be faced with close to double that number on Tuesday. When asked whether all absentee ballots would be counted the night of the election, Davis conceded, “I have no idea.”

Party Reactions

The local leaders of both major parties disagree politically, but both said they’re excited about the size of the turnout.

“It does my heart good to know the people in my community are voting, said Randy Pace, chair of the Knox County Republican Party. “People love their community and they’re coming out en masse.”

“I think there’s a new level of excitement about voting and civic engagement in Knox County and across Tennessee,” Knox County Democratic Party Chair Matt Shears said.

Tennessee isn’t considered a battleground state — Trump got 60.7 percent of the vote statewide and carried Knox County with 58.5 percent of the tally in 2016.

The last traditional scientific poll of Tennessee voters was released in May, a Vanderbilt University poll that showed Trump with a 9-point lead over former Vice President Joe Biden. A SurveyMonkey-Tableau online poll this week cosponsored by Axios showed Trump with a 56-42 percent lead over Biden. (That poll is not considered high quality by the statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight.)

Also on the ballot are races for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives and the state Legislature, plus two county Charter amendments.

Shears and Pace both point to the state House of Representatives races in the 13th and 18th districts as local contests that could provide drama.

In the 13th District, which has changed hands between the parties in recent elections, the GOP’s Elaine Davis is challenging incumbent Democrat Gloria Johnson. The 18th District, which includes West Knoxville, features Republican businessman Eddie Mannis and Democratic attorney Virginia Couch vying for an open seat that Democrats narrowly failed to flip in 2018.

“I feel confident Gloria will retain her seat,” Shears said, “and Virginia Couch has run the best race in that (18th) district in 30 years.”

Shears said polls across the country show suburban voters moving toward Democratic candidates and thinks the same phenomenon is at work in Knox County.

Pace said he doesn’t like to make predictions, and asserted that both races look to be close. Still, he likes the GOP’s chances of holding onto the 18th District seat and flipping the 13th District back into the Republican fold.

“High voter turnout will favor Republicans,” he said. “Knox County is redder.”

The party leaders also agree that the high turnout means that both Republicans and Democrats are passionate about the 2020 election.

“All of our candidates this year have demonstrated Democrats in Knox County can move the needle toward Democrats,” Shears said.

The GOP currently holds a 5-2 edge over Democrats within the Knox County state House delegation. The 2nd District U.S. House seat has been in Republican hands since before the Civil War.

“Both parties are energized,” Pace said. “Both parties are motivated.”