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Mid-South states prepare for historic amount of absentee ballots returned, each with different processing rules

TN, MS, and AR each have different timelines on when absentee ballots can be opened, sorted, and counted.

MEMPHIS, Tennessee — Local 24 News is committed to making sure your vote counts, including the different ways Mid-South states process absentee ballots.

Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee each do things a little differently, as election officials prepare for an unprecedented number of absentee ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, in Shelby County, elections staff sent out the first wave of absentee ballots. Tennessee already has three times the total of absentee ballot requests made in 2016. The Volunteer State is one of more than 20 states which pre-processes absentee ballots as they're returned by mail.

"Pre-processing, essentially that means when the ballot comes back, there's a couple of things that's going to happen. One, the information is going to be tracked so we can put it in the ballot tracker," Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins said.

For the first time this year, all Tennesseans who vote absentee can keep track of their ballot, starting when their ballot is received. In rare cases, pre-processing can also catch signature issues, so they can be corrected by Election Day.

"There is an opportunity to find out if the voter, perhaps, if their signature has changed," Goins said.

Goins said pre-processed absentee ballot envelopes are put in safe deposit boxes - with two locks - only opened with two keys held by a Democrat and Republican official.

Tennessee law states when polls open on Election Day, those envelopes can be opened, flattened and prepared for the scanners.

"We are not allowed to start tabulating those votes until the closing of the polls, so you can prepare up until that moment," Goins said.

The rules are different in Arkansas, where "the election officials must process and tabulate absentee votes before the closing of polls on Election Day but may not print or release election results until the polls are closed."

In the Magnolia State, according to DeSoto County Election Commission Chairman Danny Klein: "throughout Election Day - in DeSoto County and across Mississippi - absentee ballot envelopes will  be reviewed and can be rejected if there's problems. However, envelopes cannot be opened and counted until the polls close at 7 p.m. so if there's a challenge, the envelope hasn't been tampered."

As of Thursday afternoon, in Shelby County, staff mailed out more than 22,000 absentee ballot requests. That's compared to less than 8000 total requested mailed in 2016.

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