MEMPHIS, Tenn — While the August 6th primary election day was a success for the Shelby County Election Commission, ballots arriving late in the mail shed light on potential issues for the November election.
Nearly 17,000 Shelby County residents voted by an absentee ballot for the primary. A record-high number. In November, the election commission is anticipating the number of requests for absentees to be as high as 100,000.
One week after the primary, the commission has already received 1,500 absentee requests for the November general election.
Shelby County Election Administrator Linda Phillips feels more confident looking towards November after the test of the primary election. The commission was able to process and verify the ballots and give timely results.
“We had a solid plan. We had solid help," Phillips said. "We had finished scanning everything that had come in prior to election day by the time polls closed. It took us about an hour after the polls closed to scan in the stuff that we got late in the afternoon."
Phillips said they learned a lot through the primary and are continuing to hire more people to prepare for higher numbers in November which will be needed to send out absentee ballots in a timely fashion.
Of the nearly 17,000 people that returned their absentee ballots, nearly 3,000, of the 20,000 that were requested, did not get returned. Some opted for voting in-person instead. Other absentee ballots arrived too late to count.
“Unfortunately, more and more come back each day but they’re too late to be counted," Phillips said.
In the week since the election, nearly 300 late absentee ballots have arrived by mail.
Phillips asks absentees to request their ballots as early as possible for the November election. State law allows people to request an absentee up until seven days prior to an election.
"That is just not realistic. I appreciate that they don’t want to be seen as making it harder for voters but realistically, if I get a request on seven days before the election and I can take them up until midnight means I mail it out on the sixth day before the election. There’s a weekend in there," she said. "Ballots mailed that late from us to the voter are just not going to be returned in time unless they come back on some sort of express service.”
A key concern heading into November is a backlog of mail within the U.S. Postal Service and the effect it will have on election results.
“Given the vagaries of ballot deliveries by the postal service, if you want to make absolutely certain that you’re ballot counts, put on a mask and go vote in person." Phillips said.
Recently, the supreme court ruled against an injunction that would put fear of COVID-19 as a request reason for an absentee ballot.
“Voters who have an underlying health condition may check the sick box but they need to use common sense with that," Phillips said.
That choice wasn't on the primary absentee request form either.
Phillips said a majority of absentee requests came from people over the age of 60. A good number also put down hospitalization or illness reasons.
"We don’t really know if they were truly sick or ill or whether they were scared of COVID-19," she said. "We have no way of knowing that."
Before the absentee ballots can be sent out, the November ballot has to be finalized. Phillips said it's expected to be completed around September 10th.