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Arkansas voters may be able to cast absentee ballots in the November general election after all.

It is not the kind of no-excuse, automatic vote-by-mail system available in some states. The Arkansas system arguably may be just flexible enough, though, to allow voters a chance to cast absentee ballots rather than go to the polls during a pandemic.

Secretary of State John Thurston, who is the state's chief election officer, issued a statement last week clarifying the process, which requires a voter to state an excuse for not going to the polls before the voter can receive an absentee ballot.

"It is my opinion and belief that our current laws are sufficient to allow the registered voters of Arkansas the choice of going to their local polling location or requesting an absentee ballot from their local county clerk," said Thurston. "We are fortunate that our lawmakers had the foresight in crafting our election laws to allow for times of being unavoidably absent whether by natural disaster, war or global pandemic."

Under the Arkansas law, a voter may request an absentee ballot due to a handful of specific reasons.

Among them is that the voter will be "unavoidably absent" from his or her polling site on Election Day.

Other acceptable excuses include illness or physical disability, being an active-duty member of (or the spouse or dependent of) the uniformed services or Merchant Marine, or being an Arkansas resident temporarily living outside the U.S.

Effectively, Thurston has interpreted the law to mean the ongoing pandemic, or avoiding possible exposure to the coronavirus, is reason enough to be "unavoidably absent" from the polls.

Assuming he gets county clerks in the 75 Arkansas counties to see the law the same way, they could universally accept absentee applications on those grounds.

Last week, during one of his daily covid-19 briefings, Gov. Asa Hutchinson noted Thurston's assertion. Hutchinson said he'd want to look into it more but suggested Thurston might have taken care of the matter.

The onus has been on the governor to clarify the situation with an executive order. He did just that back during the primary election, allowing for absentee voting throughout the state.

Hutchinson has said he'll decide by Aug. 1 if he needs to make a similar order for the general election in November.

He maintains that would be soon enough to allow county clerks and local election commissions to pivot to prepare for more absentee voting than is normal.

As much as the governor -- and the rest of us -- might want the pandemic's impact to ease, the chance of that seems unlikely for a long while yet. Covid-19 continues its spread in Arkansas, prompting a seriously scary forecast of 3,300 hospitalizations at its predicted peak on Sept. 30.

The prediction comes from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and is based on experiences within this state to date.

Arkansas already has had nearly 21,000 positive cases of covid-19. About 6,000 cases are active now and there have been 270 related deaths.

The situation with the virus certainly seems to be getting worse, not better. Those of us still trying to keep our distance from others would appreciate the governor's action sooner rather than later to assure access to absentee ballots in November, despite Thurston's seemingly clear statement.

There was one more complication to the absentee voting saga in Arkansas last week.

Three septuagenarians, including one who is a former state elections director and political foe of Thurston, filed suit in Pulaski Circuit Court against the secretary of state.

Susan Inman, who lost to Thurston in the 2018 race for secretary of state; Ollie Neal Jr., a retired Arkansas Court of Appeals judge; and Jan Baker, a lawyer who formerly led the Disability Rights Center of Arkansas, brought the suit.

It asserts that the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1985 ruled voters are not required to explain in detail why they can't vote in person, thereby allowing voting by mail for any reason.

The plaintiffs asked the court not to require voters to choose between risking their health and giving up their constitutional right to vote.

Remember, the statement Thurston issued last week says voters may choose to vote absentee rather than at the polls.

Still, it would be nice if someone -- the courts or the governor -- would lock that down.


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