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Arkansas counties got some straightforward guidance recently on how to conduct a safe election in the midst of a pandemic.

Foremost was the caution that local election officials can encourage, but not require, voters to wear masks. The same goes for the people assisting voters, serving as poll watchers or actively performing election administration duties.

That may sound contrary to Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson's statewide executive order requiring facial coverings in situations where people cannot socially distance themselves from others. But his order specifically exempts voters and others involved in the election process.

While the potential health risk to voters and to poll workers from the virus is a serious concern, so, too, is protecting the constitutional right to vote. The state simply cannot impose any extra requirement to vote -- no matter the emergency.

While the policy may please the anti-maskers out there, it is another reason why Arkansas voters may want to vote absentee in the upcoming, problematic general election.

The likelihood of increased absentee balloting is itself creating additional challenges for election officials.

The challenges begin with preparing enough materials for absentee ballots and sending them out to voters who request them. But those votes will eventually have to be counted and that cannot start until 8:30 a.m. on Election Day. Hence, counties may need to recruit and train more people to do the job.

The caution about masks at the polls and other suggestions have come from the state Board of Election Commissioners. The seven-member board, which is chaired by Secretary of State John Thurston, plays an oversight role and distributes money to the counties for elections at all levels of government.

A three-page memo released by the state board outlines recommended strategies for the county clerks and county boards of election commissioners. They're the people who actually conduct elections in Arkansas.

Rest assured, every clerk and county commissioner has been paying rapt attention to the coronavirus spread and how it might impact the elections. They know full well that this election will be unlike any they've ever conducted.

Local officials may take common-sense measures, like creating enough space at the polling places to allow social distancing and even providing masks to those who want them. It will help if the weather is good and the socially distanced lines can extend outside for what is expected to be a record turnout.

If a county conducts a health screening at the polls, election officials may send a voter identified as potentially ill to a ballot-marking device that is separated from others. But there can be no limit to any voter's access to a ballot.

Fortunately, the state is getting a significant funding assist from the federal government to help pay for these virus-complicated general elections.

Extra money for Arkansas is coming from a $4.7 million federal grant under the CARES Act. (The acronym stands for Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.) The state will match the grant money with $934,807 in state funds.

Still more money for the election may be approved if the Congress can agree on legislation to extend the CARES Act, but the state is proceeding with what it has now to get ready for the Nov. 3 vote.

Remember, this election is less than three months away.

The state has so far spent roughly $800,000 on personal protective equipment for election officials. The local officials don't have to use it, but it is highly recommended.

The purchase includes KN95 reusable face masks, face shields and plexiglass stand-up shields. The state has also acquired hand sanitizer, gloves, disinfecting cleaning supplies and 70% alcohol for election use.

Any surfaces voters might come in contact with are to be regularly cleaned. And voters will be provided disposable styluses to mark their ballots.

The state is in the process of getting all these supplies out to Arkansas' 75 counties, where local officials are preparing to locate and train poll workers.

That, too, could be a problem. Many of the state's traditional poll workers are elderly and among those most susceptible to the coronavirus. County officials need to find out who among them will be willing to work this election and find replacements for those who aren't.

Then it will be time to get all the poll workers trained to do what they can to make this election safe and secure.

Brenda Blagg is a freelance columnist and longtime journalist in Northwest Arkansas. Email her at [email protected]

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