NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett voiced opposition Wednesday to offering drop boxes for absentee ballots, telling a U.S. Senate panel that the state requires returning those ballots by mail in the name of security.
The Republican joined via video-conference as a witness to a hearing on election preparations by the Senate Committee on Rules & Administration. He drew high praise from GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, but scrutiny from two Democrats and an independent over the state's opposition to make absentee voting widely available during the coronavirus pandemic, which a state judge ordered in Tennessee last month.
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota asked Hargett why Tennessee doesn't have drop boxes, since officials are concerned nationally about U.S. Postal Service delays with the huge influx of by-mail ballots across the country. Drop boxes are not among the several issues currently being targeted in lawsuits over Tennessee's absentee voting during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Frankly, it’s an anti-coercion methodology," Hargett responded. "If you look at it, if someone knows you’ve got an absentee ballot and they can say, 'Hey, I’ll be glad to take that for you and drop that off for you,' they can ask you what you filled that ballot out or they can not turn it in at all for you.”
Hargett was joined by West Virginia Republican Secretary of State Mac Warner, Rick Stream, the Republican Director Of Elections of St. Louis County, Missouri, and Kristen Clarke, president of the National Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights Under Law. Clarke's group is one that has sued Tennessee separately in federal court over its absentee voting excuses and three other absentee-related laws.
Clarke said her group hasn't seen any complaints or problems with drop boxes, saying they're “critical for providing access this season.” Ten states have drop boxes in some or all counties, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, though several more have added the option.
In Tennessee, the last day to request an absentee ballot for the Aug. 6 primary is July 30, though some officials are urging voters to act as quickly as possible in case of delays mailing them back. Local election offices must receive completed absentee ballots via mail no later than the close of polls on Election Day. Early voting in person is already underway with precautions.
"We have no control over the operations of the United States Postal Service," Hargett said. “Each election year, without fail, counties mail ballots that are never returned or they’re received weeks after Election Day.”
Hargett asked that any additional federal coronavirus stimulus money for elections not require states to provide matching money or mandate changes to states' method of casting votes. More than a third of registered voters were already eligible to vote by mail because they are 60 or older, Hargett pointed out. Tennessee has historically seen less than 2.5% of votes cast by mail, Hargett's office has said.
The state is appealing the expansion of absentee voting in the Tennessee Supreme Court, where a decision likely needs to happen sooner than later — the first day to request an absentee ballot for the November election is Aug. 5.
Only a handful of states have not moved to expand voting options during the pandemic, though two-thirds of states have allowed mail-in voting for everyone for years. In Tennessee, Hargett noted that Republican state lawmakers have voted against the expansion multiple times in recent months.
The issue drew scrutiny from Klobuchar and two other senators. When Hargett said that “under Tennessee law, fear of contracting the coronavirus is not an excuse,” independent Sen. Angus King of Maine replied, “Well, that's pitiful.”
“Doing everything you can to make people who may be vulnerable to COVID appear in person doesn’t make it sound like you want people to show up and vote,” said Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.