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Election officials eye changes in state laws

by Tom Sissom | December 27, 2020 at 1:03 a.m.
Max Deitchler (from left) and Bill Ackerman, both members of the Washington County Election Commission, work Thursday Nov. 5, 2020, with Renee Oelschlaeger commission chairman as they discuss absentee ballots that arrived with problematic signatures during a meeting of the commission in the Washington County Courthouse in Fayetteville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Local election officials have compiled a wish list of changes to state laws and perhaps the Arkansas Constitution they say could improve the voting process.

"Every election gives us the opportunity to identify areas which can be improved," Benton County Clerk Betsy Harrell said.

Harrell said Benton and Washington counties do a review before every legislative session. The county election commissions will work with the Arkansas County Clerks' Association to advocate for legislative proposals.

The Washington County Election Commission spent about two hours Dec. 17 discussing items including voter identification requirements, procedures for voting by absentee ballots and dates for special elections.

The commissioners received a list of hoped-for legislative measures from Benton County officials and discussed those with Kim Dennison, Benton County's election coordinator.

Jennifer Price, Washington County's elections director, said many of the suggested changes are meant to clarify the state's election laws and to bring older practices into line with more recent developments or additions.

For example, commissioners discussed legal requirements that election officials compare signatures and other information between absentee ballot applications and the voter statements returned with the ballots. The commissioners are to compare the voters' names, addresses, dates of birth and signatures using those documents, but not the photo ID voters are required to submit.

Max Deitchler, a commission member, has argued the voter ID law, being the most recent, should allow officials to use the ID to verify the voters' identities. He suggested legislators didn't consider the older requirements when they passed the voter ID law in 2017.

Deitchler said members of the election commission aren't qualified to compare signatures, noting courts require experts for handwriting analysis.

"I think the signature law is an outdated, archaic and useless requirement under Arkansas election law," he said.

Officials also discussed whether Arkansas should recognize tribal identification cards and out-of-state driver's licenses if they meet all of the other requirements.

Price told the commission the question of tribal IDs came up during poll worker training. Two of her poll workers have tribal IDs and asked if they would be accepted, she said. The answer is no. State law specifies an ID must be issued by the United States, the state of Arkansas or an accredited postsecondary educational institution in Arkansas.

Dennison said out-of-state driver's licenses are a more common issue in Benton County. She said most often the issue is raised by someone who works for a Walmart vendor and who is living in the county for a limited time.

"They're here for six or eight months or a year, and they know after that they're going to move on," she said. "For that reason, they don't want to go through the whole process of getting an Arkansas driver's license."

Absentee voting

Absentee voting raised a number of issues from time lines to procedures.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson used his pandemic emergency powers to modify election procedures this year. His Aug. 7 executive order allowed any Arkansas voter to request an absentee ballot, citing the pandemic as a reason. Arkansas law restricts absentee ballots to those who are unavoidably unable to vote in person.

Benton County issued 16,155 absentee ballots, and Washington County issued 12,965 for the general election, about five times the normal number for a presidential election, voter records show.

The governor's executive order also extended the time from seven days to 15 days for county election officials to check signatures in the outer envelope of the absentee ballots. Election officials received 11 extra hours on election day to count the completed absentee ballots as well.

Price told the commission voters can request an absentee ballot as late as seven days before an election, which can cause problems with ballots not being returned in time to be counted. She suggested changing the deadline to the first day of early voting for each election, which would allow for two weeks for primary and general elections and one week for runoff elections.

Dennison said having one week to have a ballot mailed to a voter and returned can be difficult. A voter in the recent general election who was in New York City made such a request and then paid extra postage to have the ballot returned by overnight delivery. It arrived two days after the election and could not be counted, she said.

"There's one thing the voter has absolutely no control over, and that's the mail," Washington County Commissioner Bill Ackerman said during the discussion. "It doesn't do any good to argue with the Postal Service."

Special elections

The timing of elections also was discussed, with some legislators having expressed an interest in limiting the number of special elections. Price said the state needs to have a settled election calendar in that event. She would like to see primary elections at the same time each election cycle instead of switching between March and May.

The state holds its primaries in March during presidential election years, and in May for other years. Primaries were always held in May until the Legislature mandated the change in 2019. Lawmakers wanted the state to be a factor in the "Super Tuesday" vote in March. About one-third of all presidential primary delegates were awarded by the 14 states voting in the March 3, 2020, primary.

County officials also would like special elections held in conjunction with the general election and on other days during the year designated for such elections. As the law stands now, local and state governments can set special elections for any one of a number of days, subject to certain guidelines to give the voting public sufficient notice.

Renee Oelschlaeger, chairwoman of the Washington County Election Commission, said the Legislature needs to consider election laws as a whole rather than piecemeal.

"This is a hard one," Oelschlaeger said during the discussion of voter ID requirements. "They weren't thinking about some of these things when they passed the voter ID. It's too hit-and-miss. It needs to be revisited in a way that's cohesive."

Two area legislators agreed election laws could be a topic of discussion in the 2021 session.

Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, said Arkansas avoided making any headlines during the 2020 elections and praised the state's election officials.

Lundstrum agreed changes should be considered as a whole.

"This is what they should be doing, and I commend it," she said. "You want to look at things after every election."

Josh Bryant, a Republican from Rogers, who won the House District 96 race, said his service on the Benton County Quorum Court gave him some familiarity with local concerns and with state reactions to those concerns.

Bryant said most of the changes he's discussed with local election officials constitute a fine-tuning of existing laws. He said he's open to changes but will have to hear the reasoning behind them and any arguments either for or against them. He said the question of recognizing tribal IDs is one such question.

"I'd like to know what, if any, security there is in the process of issuing a tribal ID," he said. "Does a person just show up with some paperwork and get one? Have there been any issues with fraud? I definitely want more information from the tribal authorities."

More News

Arkansas General Assembly

The Arkansas state Legislature will meet in Little Rock for its next regular session beginning Jan. 11. The Legislature meets in regular sessions in odd-numbered years. The session lasts for 60 days unless the Legislature votes to extend it. Bill filing for the session began Nov. 16.

Source: State of Arkansas


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