The virus and voting

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 207 views 

With the general election a scant two months away, it’s time we get ourselves informed about what we’ll see on what promises to be a lengthy ballot.

Before we do, however, perhaps the first decision many Arkansans will have to make is how they will cast their ballots. We have three options in Arkansas – in person on election day; by early voting from Oct. 19 until Nov. 2, the Monday before the election; or by absentee ballot.

Absent a miracle, it seems extremely unlikely that COVID-19 will disappear from the face of the earth on the first Tuesday in November not withstanding some folks’ belief to the contrary.

Voters in Arkansas, traditionally a cautious lot by nature, almost certainly will give much thought to how and when they choose to cast their ballots. How many decide upon the absentee ballot method of voting in Arkansas should tell us a great deal about how fearful the electorate still is of the virus by November.

In Craighead County, some 800 people cast absentee ballots in the 2016 election, which as we know was a presidential election year. Those 800 were among the nearly 36,000 total who exercised their right to vote in 2016, said Jennifer Clack, the county’s election coordinator.

Prefacing her statement by saying “I’m really bad at guessing, but I think we will take a hit from corona,” Clack noted that this national election may be even more contentious than 2016 and spur some extra turnout. “I don’t know if one will cancel out the other.”

She noted also that in the county’s largest city, Jonesboro, there is a race to replace current Mayor Harold Perrin, who due to health reasons is retiring Dec. 31 after 12 years as mayor. That race, a four-person contest among Harold Copenhaver, Amanda Dunavant, Andy Shatley and Tom Elwood, is likely to swell Jonesboro’s turnout.

“That’s what I love about Craighead County and Jonesboro. The people turn out for their local elections, they know about our local races,” Clack said.

In addition, there are several questions that the voters will decide.

Arkansas legislators voted to put three constitutional amendments on the November ballot. One deals with legislative term limits, another would change the way measures are put on the ballot.

The proposed constitutional amendment — listed on the ballot as Issue 1 — is the one that may draw a number of voters who might not be otherwise interested. If approved, Issue 1 would make permanent a temporary half-cent sales tax for state highways, county roads and city streets.

Voters approved it in 2012, but it is set to expire in 2023 unless the voters approve making it permanent.

The University of Arkansas Extension Service maintains a web site with information about all the ballot questions. Inform yourself by visiting the University of Arkansas’ Cooperative Extension Service state ballot issue section.

Though 800 to 1,000 voters might normally cast absentee ballots in Northeast Arkansas’ most populous county, Clack said the election commission is anticipating that there could be four times as many in 2020 who choose the absentee method.

State law permits voters who will be “unavoidably absent” on election day from the polls or who are disabled or ill, in the military or merchant marine or temporarily living outside the U.S. to cast absentee ballots. In July, the State Board of Election Commissioners determined that voters who conclude that going to the polls on Election Day will raise concerns about their health or the health of others because of COVID will be unavoidably absent and therefore eligible to vote absentee. A resolution, passed by the commission on July 19, called on the state and county governments “to take reasonable steps to aid qualified electors … to understand their right to request an absentee ballot.”

Clack said voters who qualify should contact the county clerk’s office and request an absentee ballot packet which includes the application, a form and the ballot. The voter marks the ballot and then seals it in a security envelope so that election workers cannot see it. After the packet is received at the clerk’s office from the voter or the voter’s designated “bearer,” Clack said, then signatures are matched and the materials are stored securely until Election Day. A voter can obtain an absentee ballot until the day before, she said, but no new ballots go out on the day of the election.

The Arkansas absentee ballot process is completely different from the current brouhaha in Congress about the U.S. Postal Service’s ability or will to deliver the election-day mail on time.

Some Democrats contend that the Postal Service — headed by Trump appointee Louis DeJoy — has deliberately slowed current deliveries of mail in an effort to cast doubt on the agency’s ability to deliver in a timely fashion or at all the large volume of ballots that universal vote-by-mail would generate. Some Republicans, notably the president, claim universal vote-by mail systems are rife with fraud and the Democrats are pushing widespread vote-by-mail in order to defeat him.

Seems like that’s the stuff of which lawsuits are made. While we don’t have the universal vote-by-mail system in Arkansas that some states have which is causing the current partisan arm wrestling in Washington, that won’t slow the coffee shop debates about the topic. Twenty years ago, it was hanging and pregnant chads. We didn’t even have chads on our ballots, neither hanging nor pregnant.

I can’t wait for Mailbox Gate.

Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.