Tennessee: How to Make Sure Your Vote Counts in the 2020 Election

What you need to know, including key deadlines and how to vote by mail.

Grace Han/Thrillist
Grace Han/Thrillist

Safety is paramount in the lead-up the 2020 election on November 3, and Tennessee certainly could have tried a little harder to bring COVID-19 safety precautions to the table. Unlike the states expanding mail-in voting, Tennessee hasn't agreed to no-excuse absentee ballots, so folks who are healthy but concerned about getting coronavirus will likely be required to vote in person. It's still possible to avoid the Election Day crowds in Tennessee, and we'll explain how below.

While Tennessee clearly prefers that you vote in person, it has an early voting system that makes it easier to avoid crowded polling locations. Also, a recent lawsuit has led to the introduction of another ballot qualifier -- anyone with an underlying health condition that makes them vulnerable to COVID-19, or anyone caring for someone with a condition, can vote by mail. And for those who cannot vote by mail, the CDC has provided information on how to stay safe at the polls. Plan ahead and you'll be more than prepared to safely navigate the big day. 

What’s the deadline to register to vote in Tennessee?

Tennessee allows in-person, mail-in, and online registration. Usually you have to register 30 days before Election Day, but because October 4 falls on a Sunday this year, you can register by October 5. It's a similar situation for mail-in registration -- your forms must be postmarked 30 days before Election Day, but because that deadline is Sunday, you get one extra business day (maybe don't push your luck, though). You can also register online 30 days in advance of the election. VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: If you register to vote by mail or online, you have to vote in person the first time, so it might be the safest bet to register in person and vote by mail (if you qualify) to avoid the bigger crowd.

How to register to vote in Tennessee

You can register in person at county election commission offices, county clerk offices, public libraries, or deeds offices. For mail-in registration, you can send this form to your county election commission, and for online registration, go to this website

Can I vote early? When does early voting start in Tennessee?

To vote early, you be registered and show up in person at either the county election commission office or at a satellite voting location opened by the county election commission. This period usually begins 20 days before the election and ends five days before. For the 2020 General Election November 3, early voting will begin on October 14 and end on October 29, according to election information issued by Secretary of State Tre Hargett. To get information on exactly where to go and early voting hours at your polling place, you should contact the local county election commission office. Some people can technically also vote early via absentee ballot, but not everyone... More on that below.

Can I vote by mail?

So... maybe. While many states adjusted their mail-in policies to accommodate those with COVID-19 safety concerns, Tennessee didn't make it any easier to vote from home until it was sued. Basically, the ACLU of Tennessee and co. filed a lawsuit to allow no-excuse absentee ballots, and the Tennessee Supreme Court eventually ruled that the state must allow voters with underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 -- or caretakers of someone with a condition -- to vote absentee via mail. Here is the full list of people who are eligible to absentee by mail, which includes those who are 60 or over, have disabilities, are hospitalized or taking care of someone who is hospitalized, are studying in a different state, and are observing a religious holiday.

How to request an absentee ballot in Tennessee

If you qualify for an absentee ballot, you can request one using this form. Send it to your local election commission by fax, email, or mail. Be careful to send the letter so that it arrives before October 27. Fun fact, you can also write or email your own request for an absentee ballot if you don't have a printer. Include the following information in your request:

  • Name
  • Address
  • Social security number
  • Date of birth
  • Address at which you’d like to receive your ballot
  • Election in which you’d like to participate
  • Reason you want to request an absentee ballot
  • Copy of your Commercial Driver’s License or your Transportation Worker Identification Credential card
  • Signature (scanned if you choose to email.) 

Is there a way to track my absentee ballot? How can I make sure it’s counted?

Tennessee has a tracker tool for both registration and mail-in voting, but you'll note that it says "voter registration data current as of ___." As I write this on September 10, the date written is September 4, meaning this tracker might not be the most reliable way to check. To follow your ballot from start to finish, you can go to the post office and add certified mail service to your letter, so that you'll get a tracking number you can later search on the USPS website. Then you can call your local election commission a few days after the ballot's sent to see if it's received.

There are a few things you should keep in mind while completing your absentee ballot: carefully follow all of the instructions that came with it, make sure you meet the deadlines for requesting and returning it, and make sure you signature matches the one on file in your voter registration. Oh, and it's also always a good idea to avoid rips or other damage to your voting materials so that your ballot isn't thrown out on some sort of technicality.

How can I stay safe while voting in person?

The Tennessee Secretary of State has detailed precautions election officials are taking at polling places to help voters and poll workers stay safe, including offering hand sanitizer.

"Whether you vote in-person during early voting or on Election Day, your county election commission office has worked very hard to implement COVID-19 protocols," per information issued by the Secretary of State. "Poll officials wear either face masks or face shields and in some instances both. Gowns and gloves will also be available for poll officials to use. Every polling place has hand sanitizer for the poll officials and voters to use. In addition, the 6’ signage is in place to facilitate proper social distancing. During voting hours, where feasible, county election commission offices have put up plexiglass dividers at check-in stations at early voting locations and at polling places."

The CDC has also issued several safety tips to help voters protect themselves and others. Here's a rundown of what the CDC recommends you do while voting, per its official election guidance page:

  • Wear a mask. 
  • Keep a distance of at least six feet from others at all times.
  • Wash your hands both before and after leaving your polling location.
  • Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol frequently throughout your time inside the polling place, especially after you touch things like door hands, voting machines, and other surfaces that lots of other people touch.
  • If you cough or sneeze, cover them with a tissue or the inside of your elbow. Dispose of the tissues in a lined garbage can, then use that 60% alcohol hand sanitizer again. 
  • Don't try to disinfect the voting machine or equipment yourself because you may end up damaging them with cleaners and disinfectant products. This is where hand sanitizer comes in again. Use it right after you touch the voting equipment, and if you use it before you touch the equipment, make sure your hands have dried first. 
  • Try to vote when your polling place isn't as busy. This might involve driving by and checking to see how long the line is.
  • Verify that you're registered to vote before you leave home and make sure you bring any documents you'll need to avoid complications that could result in spending more time inside the polling place.
  • Bring your own black ink pen for marking your ballot, or your own stylus (just check with a polling place worker before you use it). 
  • If possible, fill out a sample ballot at home that you can use to speed up casting your ballot at the polling location. 

Additional Tennessee voting resources

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Ruby Anderson is a News Writer at Thrillist. Send your tips to randerson@thrillist.com.