There were two competing measures to allow Arkansas citizens to vote by absentee ballot in the general election should the COVID-19 pandemic still make it dangerous for voters to come to the polls in November. Only one was voted on at Thursday’s (April 9) Joint Budget Committee.
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, and Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, drafted amendments to the Secretary of State’s appropriation bill that would allow for voters to cast absentee ballots without an excuse. The two measures are similar, but Dotson’s would prevent an absentee voter who requests a ballot from voting by any other method, including in person.
Present Arkansas law allows that a voter can vote absentee for one of the following reasons:
- The voter will be “unavoidably absent” from his or her polling location on Election Day;
- The voter is physically unable to visit his or her polling location on Election Day due to illness or disability;
- The voter is a member of the armed forces; and
- The voter is a citizen temporarily living outside of the United States.
Elliot, who also had support from five other Democratic legislators, said the legislation was needed now to provide clarity to voters. She also said it would avoid a repeat of Wisconsin’s Tuesday primary election, in which voters stood in line for hours – some with masks, some trying to practice safe social distancing – after state and federal courts declined moving the election and extending the absentee voting timeline.
“It is my thought that this is something that is important enough that we ought to put this into legislation so that there is no equivocation about it. That it is absolutely clear to the voters what will happen,” Elliott said.
Elliot’s proposal failed by a 15-38 vote, largely along party lines; however, a handful of Republicans voted for the amendment.
Dotson withheld bringing his amendment to the committee due to concerns raised by Elliott in her presentation. He said he wanted to pass over the proposal, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Huntsville, and bring it up at a later time.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson was asked about the proposal at his daily COVID-19 press briefing. He said he thought it would be premature to put “no excuse” absentee balloting into effect at this time as he was unsure if it would be needed.
If the pandemic was still gripping Arkansas, Hutchinson said there would be a way to address the situation.
“I would be open to waiving the rules,” he said if circumstances warranted.