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Fear of contracting covid-19 is now officially an excuse for absentee voting in Arkansas.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson underscored the point last week when he signed an executive order to that effect.

Arkansas' county clerks also got more time to prepare absentee ballots for counting, although counting cannot start until 8:30 a.m. on Election Day.

Hutchinson's order is important to preparations for the Nov. 3 general election, when voters might otherwise be needlessly exposed to what may still be a raging coronavirus.

Certainly, precautions will include cleaning surfaces and keeping voters separated, but the state cannot force voters to wear masks because such a requirement might be construed as infringing on the constitutional right to vote. The potential for interaction with people carrying the virus is all too real.

Hutchinson's announcement came on a day when new covid-19 cases in Arkansas spiked to more than 1,000 cases. The daily case count has since dropped most days, but the total known infections since March tops 50,000, with more than 7,300 of those active cases. The death toll as of Tuesday was 566 in Arkansas.

Nationally, more than 5 million cases have been reported. Arkansas' 50,000-plus case load might seem low. But, broken down per 100,000 population, the count here has steadily worsened and is currently 16th highest among the 50 states. Arkansas' population ranks 33rd among the states.

Clearly, the health emergency is continuing and will apparently be with us for many months to come.

Hence, voters really need this option to vote absentee.

Ordinarily, Arkansas law permits absentee voting, but for specific reasons. One of those is that the voter will be "unavoidably absent" from his or her polling site on Election Day.

Back in June, Secretary of State John Thurston, the state's chief election officer, interpreted that provision as allowing voters to request an absentee ballot during a pandemic. The governor and the chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties backed up the argument that the health risk justifies an unavoidable absence from the polls.

Those declarations triggered what Hutchinson said has been a dramatic increase in requests for absentee ballots.

County clerks have since asked the governor to formalize the declarations with an executive order and to help them speed up the count of what are expected to be record numbers of absentee ballots.

His order will allow them to open the outer envelope that contains information about the voter up to 15 days before the election, although an inner envelope containing the ballot cannot be opened until Election Day.

The extra time will allow verification of a voter's eligibility sooner, leaving the counting for Election Day -- and later.

Traditionally, absentee ballot counts, because they start earlier in the day, have been among the first to come in on election night. The expected crush of absentee ballots threatens to slow the vote counting everywhere.

That, of course, assumes absentee ballots will actually reach their destinations on time.

There is real concern as to whether the U.S. Postal Service can deliver this mail on time. Recent changes at USPS, implemented by a new postmaster appointed by President Donald Trump, could delay return of ballots, causing them not to be counted.

Numerous states, including Arkansas, won't count mail-in ballots unless they are received on or before Election Day, even if they were mailed and postmarked on time.

For that reason, voters need to know the deadlines and act accordingly.

In Arkansas, you must be registered to vote by Monday, Oct. 5, or you'll be ineligible to cast a ballot in the November election.

If you want to vote absentee, you must first request an application. Forms are available now online from the secretary of state's office or from your county clerk's office.

An application must be completed and returned to your clerk's office no later than Oct. 27. USPS is currently recommending it be mailed by Oct. 20 to be delivered on time. Local officials strongly encourage voters to follow that recommendation.

County clerks will start mailing the absentee ballots to eligible voters on Sept. 18. Most ballots must be returned no later than Election Day. (Military and civilian overseas absentee ballots may be accepted up to 10 days later.)

The best practice will be to get your absentee ballot request in early and send the completed ballot back as soon as possible.

For those who want to vote in person, early voting for the general election begins on Oct. 19 between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Early voting ends at 5 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 2.

Check with your county clerk to identify early voting sites and polling locations for Election Day.

Polls open on Nov. 3 at 7:30 a.m. and will remain open until 7:30 p.m. Anyone in line at the time the polls close will be allowed to vote.

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

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