Gov. Asa Hutchinson made it clear he supports allowing people to use an absentee ballot if they fear during the COVID-19 pandemic going to a public place to vote, but he did not address a request from Pulaski County Circuit and County Clerk Terri Hollingsworth for more money and more time to assess absentee ballots.
Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston, Democratic Party of Arkansas chair Michael John Gray and Republican Party of Arkansas chair Doyle Webb joined the governor Thursday prior to his daily COVID briefing to make a bipartisan appeal for Arkansans to request absentee ballots if they feel uncomfortable voting in public on election day.
The action follows a June 25 statement from Thurston saying he believes current laws allow voters to request an absentee ballot from their county clerk. Thurston said Thursday there were about 42,000 absentee votes cast in the 2016 general election, and he estimates 100,000 to 150,000 for the 2020 election day.
The process is relatively simple. A registered voter – the deadline in Arkansas to register for the Nov. 3 general election is Oct. 5 – can request an absentee ballot from their county clerk and mail it back seven days before the election. (Link here for more detailed information on the process.)
Gray said there will be a “challenge in educating voters” and a challenge to meet increased costs related to a wider use of absentee ballots. Webb said the Republican Party plans to “encourage our voters … to request an absentee ballot” as soon as possible.
Prior to the Thursday press conference, Hollingsworth sent a letter to Gov. Hutchinson and Secretary Thurston to make a case for using federal funds to help the 75 county clerks with an expected rise in absentee ballots, to be able to assess the absentee ballots prior to election day, and to begin tabulating the ballots the Friday (Oct. 30) before election day. The federal funds would come from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act approved by Congress to provide aid to individuals, businesses and state and local governments in response to the pandemic.
“In Pulaski County over 251,000 Arkansans are registered to vote. If turnout trends continue, like they have for the past three Presidential elections, an estimated 160,000 or more will cast a ballot in November,” Hollingsworth noted. “We receive approximately 8,000 absentee ballot requests during an average general election which is less than 5 percent of the total votes. The cost associated with each ballot sent is approximately $2.50 per mailing. If the number of absentee requests were to increase to 25 percent of the 160,000, we would be required to send out 40,000 absentee ballots.”
Assessing the ballots early would give county clerks more time to determine if the absentee ballots were submitted as required. Assessing all the ballots and tabulating votes on election day could make for a long election night, with totals possibly not known until the next day, Hollingsworth told Talk Business & Politics.
“More absentee ballots will also require more time to process and canvass those ballots before Election Day. So, I urge the governor to use his executive authority to extend ballot canvassing for the entire period of early voting and allow tabulation to begin the Friday before Election Day, October 30th,” Hollingsworth noted in her letter. “If planned deliberately and funded as needed, my fellow county clerks, election officials and I can prepare and hold an adequate election in the middle of a health crisis while setting the standard for future elections.”
‘HUGE PRICE TAG’
Hollingsworth said she has talked to Thurston about the need for more money and time, but as of late Thursday afternoon had not heard from the governor’s office.
Thurston said during the press conference that a rise in the number of absentee ballots will result in a “huge price tag when you talk about postage,” but cited pending litigation in not responding to a question about if he supported the call for CARES funding to help county clerks cover the added cost.
Three plaintiffs filed suit In Pulaski County Circuit Court June 23 against Thurston asking the court to issue a declaratory judgment finding that Arkansas law allows voters to offer any reason or no reason to vote absentee, or to declare that fear of contracting COVID-19 is a valid excuse. The lawsuit also seeks additional remedies such as paying for the added costs for county clerks to mail absentee ballot materials to voters, postage costs for voters to return it, and other expenses for ensuring voters are informed about how to vote absentee.
Gov. Hutchinson also declined to specifically address using CARES money, saying he will “take it a step at a time on what funds are needed.”