On Election Day, Pandemic Voting Comes with No Wait, Little Fear

Aug 6, 2020

A polling site in Cordova, August 6, 2020.
Credit Katie Riordan

Sheri Grear never even considered voting by mail. She didn’t want her vote for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bill Hagerty getting lost. So she showed up in person on election day.

“They had sanitizer, gloves, masks, everything was offered. I got my own pen. I had a stylus,” said Grear. “Everything was very well sanitized, so no qualms.”

By the end of the day, Grear’s ballot would be added to the more than 80,000 cast during early voting.  There were few delays to voting at polling places WKNO visited on Thursday.

Elizabeth Cook, a 76-year-old retired Democrat, also had no fear venturing to the polls. In fact, at her East Memphis site, she expected more people.

“I like to come on election day,” she said. “I think it’s just when people vote, and I just like to do that.”

Still, many people wanted to avoid potential coronavirus exposure this year. After a judge ruled in June that all eligible Tennessee residents could request an absentee ballot because of the pandemic, a record, roughly 19,000 people in Shelby County took that option. Election officials say that’s about 20 times more absentee ballots than for a normal primary like this. 

But, the rules will now be different in November. The Tennessee Supreme Court decided Wednesday that voters will have to claim a specific vulnerability to COVID-19 to request a mail-in ballot.

Steve Mulroy, a Memphis attorney who fought for absentee ballots for all, says the ruling is a partial victory.

“While we’re disappointed that the court didn’t allow all voters to vote absentee for November, when you add up all the many medical conditions that quality and their caretakers, it’s still the case that a substantial majority of Tennessee voters will be given the option to vote by mail,” Mulroy said.

The ruling likely changes plans for Daria Schwartz, who voted in person today, but wanted to mail in her ballot for the general election. As an educator who will be teaching in-person lessons soon at her private school, she doesn’t want to risk going to the polls in November when it's likley to be far more crowded.

 “I feel very strongly about minimizing my contact with others so that I don’t spread it to my students and their families,” she said.

For store owner Jimmy Hassan, safety challenges aren’t the only problem facing voters this year. The virus upended traditional ways of campaigning. 

“It has been difficult in terms of the candidates being able to meet the people like they would like. They haven’t been able to get out and shake the people’s hands and talk to them, and let them know what they actually stand for,” he said at a Midtown precinct.

But there is one thing that hasn’t changed about this year, says Midtown resident Angie Skinner.

“Somebody’s going to win," she says.