Gov. Asa Hutchinson made it official Friday afternoon, releasing yet another executive order under his emergency power.
This issue is approximately as important as schools. It's about your voting convenience in the Trump-Biden affair on Nov. 3, and other races.
By the governor's order, you are now clearly authorized to vote absentee in the general election for no reason other than the very good one that you'd rather not vote in person at a polling place because you're scared of catching the coronavirus.
Both the governor and secretary of state previously had given the verbal assurance of that convenience, owing to prevailing legal opinion. But county clerks met with the governor and said they'd like the force of law--which an executive order provides during a declared emergency.
As to which box you check on the absentee application form that the county clerk or secretary of state will provide upon request--which is a matter that has confused several readers among the thousands already seeking to apply--I'm advised you should just check "unavoidably absent."
It's true enough. It's unavoidable in that you don't want the virus.
The fact is that absentee voting is essentially no-excuse for the Nov. 3 event. But Republicans don't want to call it that because it's a favorite Democratic phrase.
State Sen. Joyce Elliott offered a bill for no-excuse absentee voting. Republicans voted her down. So this is not that, you see.
County clerks also wanted the governor's executive order to authorize them to begin opening a week earlier than normal the outer envelopes of returned absentee ballots--a request the governor obliged--so that they could do the paperwork necessary to begin counting the ballots earlier, which the governor denied.
He thus expedited the preparatory process some--perhaps quite a bit--but didn't feel comfortable permitting the unsealing of the inner secret ballots before Election Day.
Opening the outer envelope means that county election officials can assess the identifying material contained in it, thus better keeping up with the flow on verifying voter eligibility and thus the legitimacy of the ballots. That would leave only the opening of the inner envelopes containing the ballots, which can start the morning of Election Day, for entering into tabulators.
It could be that returns will be slower-going than usual this Election Night. Already, about 6,100 absentee ballots have been applied for in Pulaski County, compared to 7,800 or so cast altogether in the election of 2016. The early pace is similar in Washington and Benton counties.
Surely something on the ballot will be close enough to be left hanging into the wee hours by a slow counting. If it's the presidential race in Arkansas, then Joe Biden could begin planning his inauguration.
Close in Arkansas would mean a national Democratic landslide. And I don't think it'll be close in Arkansas.
Hutchinson had previously advocated expanded early voting opportunities, both by location and perhaps time, as a way to facilitate voting in a dispersed, safer way. But his executive order provides nothing on that point.
He explains that early voting is a function of the 75 county clerks. His office further explains that voting dates are set by Arkansas law and that there is a certain nervousness about presuming to set voting dates beyond state law through an executive order.
The concern is understandable: You don't want to do anything that might invite a lawsuit calling into question the legitimacy of the election. As for absentee voting, the state Supreme Court pretty much cleared the way for the governor's order in a previous ruling that voters' excuses should be accepted.
The remaining issue, thus, is, of course, money.
For now, Hutchinson is leaving that to Secretary of State John Thurston, who has about $4.8 million in virus-relief funds to help county clerks and election commissions with increased absentee costs, beginning with postage to send both the applications and the ballots. Some county clerks are even talking about prepaid postage on the returns, but that's entirely optional, and would be rare.
Hutchinson held out hope Congress will send more money for virus relief.
Actually, there is yet one more issue: It is whether we can find enough qualified people willing to work the polls during the virus.
Hutchinson said we may need to "get creative" on that. He said a gubernatorial colleague had told him that, in his state, the bar association was offering continuing legal education credit for any lawyers working the polls on this Election Day.
The concept of continuing professional education is quite sound. In practice, particularly now, society might be better served by public voluntarism of that sort.
We need to get education right. And we need to get the election right.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.