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Arkansas County Clerks See Uptick In Absentee Ballot Requests, But Feel Prepared For 2020 Election

Election early vote
Michael Hibblen

With the general election less than two weeks away, Arkansans currently have three ways to vote: on Election Day, Nov. 3, during early voting which runs until Nov. 2, or with an absentee ballot, where the deadline to apply to receive one by mail is Oct. 27. 

On the Arkansas absentee ballot application itself, voters must choose between three options for requesting a ballot.

They are:

  • I will be unavoidably absent from my polling site on Election Day
  • I will be unable to attend the polls on Election Day because of illness or physical disability
  • I reside in a long-term care or residential facility licensed by the state

Though potential voters do have to check one of those reasons, Connie Doss, who is the Carroll County Clerk, said it’s more or less a "no-excuse application."

"We’re not going to go around and you know, be the excuse police and check and make sure that you’re not unavoidably absent," Doss said.

However, because COVID-19 wasn’t specifically listed, there were questions on whether or not that would be considered a valid reason to vote absentee.

In late June, Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston issued a statement explicitly saying that concern related to the coronavirus pandemic is an acceptable reason to request an absentee ballot.

Betsy Harrell, county clerk for Benton County, said Thurston’s announcement along with Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s agreement with the decision, could have made a difference in easing some voters’ nerves over submitting an application for an absentee ballot.

"There are people who never drive 46 in a 45 and they don’t take the tags off of their mattresses and things like that. And to them, literally is COVID[-19] an unavoidably absent [reason], because I just don’t want to be around other people, is that unavoidable?"  Harrell said.

By late August, Harrell’s office had already received 6,000 absentee ballot requests for the election. The total number of applications they received in 2016 presidential election? 2,800.

Doss, at the time of her interview in early September, had already received 1,100 absentee ballot requests, a number that she called "extremely high" for the county considering in 2016 they received between 350 and 375. Doss also credits the secretary of state’s announcement for possibly bringing a greater awareness of the ability to vote absentee.   

"By kind of making it…you know, that awareness of it. They can go out and they go, 'Hey wait, I’ve got this other option. My life is so busy, I can just do this, and it will come to me in my mailbox, fill it out and send it back in,'" Doss said.

The county’s population may have also played a role in the number of absentee voters. Canda Reese is the county clerk for Baxter County. She says her county has a lot of older residents.

"We live in a retirement area. There are a lot of elderly people that make up the population in Baxter County and a lot of them have concerns about going to the polling location in light of COVID-19," Reese said.

Each of the 12 county clerks KUAR spoke to had similar answers. All of them reported a higher number of absentee ballot requests, some of them more than double of the applications they received in previous years. And almost all of them credited the pandemic for the increase. Despite that, all of them said they felt prepared to take on this influx of applications. 

That preparedness also applied to in-person voting, where counties are taking the needed precautions to safeguard their polling places. Brandi McCoy, the county clerk for St. Francis County, said they are taking an extra step and implementing "roving sites," which will serve as additional polling places during early voting since the county normally has one spot for early voting.

"That’s…to hit the different areas to keep, kind of, the line down here at the courthouse. You know, from…to try to social distance a little better," McCoy said.

Other precautions county clerks say they are taking include the use of an abundance of hand sanitizer, placing the voting machines at minimum six feet apart and the use of disposable styluses to vote on the machines themselves.

As far as the amount of Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, which was supplied in part by the state itself, each clerk interviewed says they have more than enough for its poll workers and for voters. Shannon Phillips, who is the County Clerk for Union County, said her county was appreciative for the state-provided supplies.

"That would have been a hardship on us to provide that, even locate it in our county. Because I know personally when I go out to buy supplies for my home I have difficulty finding it. So we’re very thankful that the state gave us those supplies," Phillips said.

However, for Sevier County Clerk Debbie Akin, one resource she could use more of is poll workers themselves.

"We’ve had from the last election…a pretty significant drop out because of COVID[-19], because the majority of our poll workers are probably over 50," Akin said.

When asked about what advice they would give to voters for this election, answers varied from being patient when waiting to vote or to not be nervous about voting, should they decide to go to the polls in person. Jimmy Cummings, Cleveland County Clerk, advises voters to know about the issues beforehand so they can minimize the time spent in the voting booth.

"Come to the poll site prepared to vote knowing the issues you’re going to vote on and the candidates you’re going to vote on. Don’t wait to decide that when you’re at the polling site. That is the best advice I can give today or any day, but is more important today than it is when we don’t have a virus going on," Cummings said.

According to the Secretary of State’s office, the deadline to submit an absentee ballot application so you receive it by mail is October 27. You can also submit your application for one, in-person by the close of the business day on Nov. 2.  Early voting runs until November 2. Election day is Nov. 3.

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