The announcement Thursday (July 2) by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Secretary of State John Thurston that Arkansas registered voters who fear exposure to COVID-19 can apply for an absentee ballot in November doesn’t go far enough to ensure that we can vote safely in November.
Let’s not pretend that this was a hard decision to reach. Given the upward trend in COVID-19 cases in Arkansas, it was a good bet that fear of exposure to the coronavirus was going to be a valid reason for voting absentee.
Apparently, it was anticipated on April 7, 2020 when Secretary of State Thurston requested $4,719,034 from the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission (CARES Act Supplemental Grant) to “… prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically … for the 2020 Federal election cycle.” Among the critical expenditures Secretary Thurston identified for the funds were “printing absentee ballots and envelopes, postage …”
Imagine my surprise when Secretary Thurston was quoted on July 2nd saying “he hopes some CARES Act funding will cover the ‘huge’ price tag associated with postage.” Even more than surprise, I thought I was being tricked when he was also quoted as saying that “[t]hose who have applied may pick up (emphasis mine) their absentee ballots before November 2.” How is that safer? The intended or unintended consequence of requiring voters to pick-up absentee ballots is vote suppression, particularly in this current public health emergency.
This is a nonpartisan issue and should not be hard. In his April 7, 2020 letter to the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission, Secretary Thurston certified that Arkansas would use the funds consistent with the requirements of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Specifically, he said “[t]o address the effects of the coronavirus on the 2020 November general election, we will
work closely with local election officials to ensure that the safety of voters and election staff is provided for … and that any changes to the voting process resulting from the coronavirus are communicated accurately and timely to Arkansans.”
It should go without saying that the funds Arkansas received under the CARES Act must be used for the purposes intended and cannot be used to fill in shortfalls in revenue. Hence, I am confused when Secretary Thurston says that he hoped his office would be able to use funds from the CARES Act to subsidize the cost of postage for absentee ballots. If not for handling the increase in absentee voting, what is he using the funds for? Clearly, some transparency is needed here.
What steps then should we take toward ensuring that we have a fair and safe election in November? Since Secretary of State Thurston suggests that a lack of funding prevents the state from mailing an application for an absentee ballot to every voter, why not skip the application step and let voters simply call to request an absentee ballot?
On its face, the application for an absentee ballot does not list COVID-19 as an excuse. However, it does include a voter statement that threatens a fine of up to $10,000 or ten (10) years in prison for perjury or providing false information. If a voter is fearful of voting in person because of COVID-19 and hasn’t heard that his fear is a valid excuse for an absentee ballot, the application itself creates a chilling effect on the exercise of a voter’s rights.
By executive order, the governor should confirm that fear of exposure to COVID-19 is a valid excuse for voting absentee and allow voters to request an absentee ballot over the phone.
Preliminary verification of the voter over the phone is possible by requesting a driver’s license number or the last four digits of their social security number. In this way, you can be reasonably certain that you are sending the absentee ballot to the registered voter.
When returning the absentee ballot, a voter must sign the voter statement under penalty of perjury certifying that the voter is registered to vote and that he or she is the voter.
Additionally, the voter must submit a copy of a valid ID. These measures are adequate to protect the integrity of the process, saves resources, and keeps voters safe during this public health emergency.
I agree with the Arkansas Public Policy Panel that the state should undertake a marketing campaign explaining how to request and mail in an absentee ballot. It is not enough to hold a press conference or to place the burden on political parties to inform voters of their right to an absentee ballot during this public health emergency. Voting is a fundamental right and it is the responsibility of the state to accurately and timely communicate this change to voters.
Editor’s note: William Hanson is the Fourth District Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress in 2020. The opinions expressed are those of the author.