Crawford, Sebastian county clerks see significant rise in absentee ballot requests

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 412 views 

Voting interest in the Nov. 3 general elections is running high in both Sebastian and Crawford counties, according to election officials. The number of voters seeking absentee ballots is considerably higher than in the 2016 general election.

In 2016, there were 73,783 registered voters in Sebastian County for the general election. Of those, 44,929 or 60.89% voted in the general election. There were 71,066 registered voters in the county for the 2018 general elections.

Thursday (Oct. 8), the Sebastian County Clerk’s office reported 72,882 registered voters in Sebastian County. County Clerk Sharon Brooks said about 300 came into the county clerk’s office to register to vote Monday (Oct. 5), the last day to register to vote in Arkansas for the Nov. 3 elections.

Of Crawford County’s 33,275 registered voters during the 2016 general election, 22,567 (68%) voted in that election. As of Thursday, there were 35,196 registered to vote in the general election, said Jo Wester, Crawford County Clerk, noting that the clerk’s office was still receiving files marked by Oct. 5 from different agencies where voters could register.

But voters aren’t just planning to vote Nov. 3. Sebastian and Crawford counties have seen a great influx in absentee voting requests this election cycle because of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2016, there were 1,200 absentee ballots cast, Brooks said. So far this year, there have been 3,000 absentee ballot applications, she said. Crawford County had 520 absentee ballots in 2016. As of Thursday, they had had 1,774 applications, Wester said.

Election commission officials are able to start opening the outer envelopes of absentee ballots Oct. 19, the day early voting begins in Arkansas, said Meghan Hassler, Sebastian County Election Coordinator. The inner envelope cannot be opened until 8:30 p.m. Nov. 3, meaning no votes can be processed until after the polls close Nov. 3, Hassler said.

The outer envelope contains personal information that confirms if the ballot is valid.

“Basically, we can check to see that you did your paperwork properly starting Oct. 19,” she said.

Sebastian County is one of six Arkansas counties who received DS450 machines from the state in order to process absentee ballots in bulk, Hassler said. Standard counting machines, which can process 11 ballots per minute, will be used in the polling stations. The machines are usually sufficient to tabulate votes at the voting stations. The DS450 machines are much higher speed and can count 72 ballots per minute, Hassler said. These will be used to count the absentee votes.

County clerks offices began mailing out absentee ballots Sept. 18. They can be sent back to the county clerk’s office any time before Election Day as long as they are received by 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 3.

Early voting begins in Arkansas Oct. 19. Voters in Sebastian County can vote at any of the six voting centers for early voting or 31 voting centers on Election Day. Polls will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3.

Though some of the veteran poll workers in Sebastian County have said they cannot work this year because of concerns over COVID-19. Hassler said 70 volunteers have signed up to be poll workers in Sebastian County this election, noting the county would have plenty of workers to man all the voting centers. She believes there will be a high turnout of voters this election, but with the pandemic, there is the chance some who wish to vote might not have the chance.

“There is an unseen factor in this election,” Hassler said of the COVID-19 virus. “And it is silent and sneaky.”

Arkansas has had 90,145 total cases (85,980 confirmed; 4,156 probable) of COVID since March. Sebastian County has had 4,107 cumulative cases (4,027 confirmed and 80 probably). As of Thursday, the Arkansas Department of Health dashboard listed 321 active cases (298 confirmed and 23 probably) and 67 deaths (59 confirmed and eight probable) in Sebastian County.

“The state has provided us with enough PPE (personal protective equipment) for all our workers as well as cleaning supplies,” Hassler said.

Each voter also will receive their own disposable stylus to use to sign their name and mark their ballots as an extra safety measure to help control the spread of the virus, she said.