Shelby Co. election staff prepare to count influx of absentee ballots amid COVID-19 pandemic

Shelby Co. election staff prepare to count influx of absentee ballots amid COVID-19 pandemic
Watch: Shelby County Election Commission taking precautions for early voting during pandemic

SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — If you have already voted absentee for Thursday’s election then it will be counted and that will not change, according to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Moving forward, the state will go back to its original interpretation of the law which limits who is eligible to request an absentee ballot.

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Wednesday, the state said people with a “special vulnerability to COVID-19, as defined in the opinion, or caretakers for individuals with a special vulnerability to COVID-19” already qualify for the eligibility requirements to vote by absentee ballot.

Several states including Tennessee made the decision earlier this year to allow anyone to request an absentee ballot amid the pandemic to limited potential exposure.

This decision walks that back for November’s Election Day.

Election Commission staff told FOX13 they’ve added dozens of counters to process the thousands and thousands of extra absentee ballots.

Election Administrator Linda Phillips told FOX13 they had 20 times the normal number of requests for absentee ballots, so her team had to grow just as much to keep up with the high demand.

FOX13 got a look at the set up for election day. Dozens of tables spread out for social distancing and ready for staff to start processing thousands of absentee ballots.

“Each table will be staffed with a bipartisan team who very carefully and very deliberately process all of these ballots,” said Phillips.

Phillips said they had about 1,000 absentee ballots during the 2016 August election but this year, that number skyrocketed to more than 19,400.

She said they can’t start counting absentee ballots until 7 a.m. on Election Day so she had to increase her manpower to make sure the results are in on time.

According to Phillips, in 2016, they only needed 8 counters. But this year, she has a team of 60, plus 12 additional staff members available if needed.

“One of the things about paper ballots though is scanning them is not the longest part of the process,” said Phillips. “Reconciling them, opening them, removing the affidavits, prepping them for scanning - that takes 10 times as long to actually scan them.”

This year, Phillips said the commission bought new absentee ballot machines, allowing them to process about 20 times more what the old machines could handle.

She said she believes any delays won’t happen inside her office but they could happen at the polls.

Phillips told FOX13 if someone requests an absentee ballot but decides to vote in person, they have to fill out a provisional ballot which takes more time to process.

“And the law is very clear,” she said. “I can’t release any absentee or early voting results until the last voter has finished voting in Shelby County. So if I get a bunch of people in line at 6:59 who want to cast provisional ballots we might not be able to post until 8 o’clock, even though we were ready at 7:01.”

Absentee ballots must be mailed in and received by the election commission before 7 p.m. Thursday evening.

Phillips said you cannot drop it off in person. If you do that, she said your vote will not be counted.