BENTONVILLE — Benton and Washington counties will prepare for a surge in absentee ballot requests for the November general election because of covid-19 concerns, officials said.
“We’ve all become familiar with the phrase ‘flatten the curve,’ and that’s what we need voters to do with their absentee ballot requests,” Benton County Clerk Betsy Harrell said. “We’re facing a monumental task. It will be crucial to get as much of the process done as possible over the next two months.”
Some states have mail-in ballots, meaning every registered voter in a county or state receives a ballot. Arkansas uses an absentee ballot system.
A voter has to request an absentee ballot application be sent to them by contacting the County Clerk in the county where they are registered to vote, according to the Arkansas Secretary of State website. Voters may download an absentee ballot application from the Secretary of State website.
The application can also be downloaded from the Benton and Washington county websites.
The application can be submitted by fax, email, in person or by mail, said Jennifer Price with the Washington County Election Commission.
“We are urging voters to submit their application in a timely manner due to the increase in absentee ballots that we are anticipating,” Price said. “One of the concerns we have seen in other states holding elections currently is that absentee ballot requests were not submitted in time for the voter to receive their ballot and get the ballot returned to the clerk’s office for it to be eligible to be counted.”
LATITUDE IN LAW
Secretary of State John Thurston said June 25 state law provides sufficient latitude for voters concerned about the coronavirus to request an absentee ballot for the November general election. The law allows a voter to request a ballot if he will be “unavoidably absent from his or her voting place on the day of the election,” among other reasons that can be given.
“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,” he said.
“We’re facing a monumental task.”
— Betsy Harrell, Benton County clerk
Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday he agrees covid-19 concerns are a legal reason to vote absentee.
Benton County has received 909 absentee applications as of Wednesday, Harrell said. The Washington County Clerk’s Office is compiling requests and did not yet have a total as of Thursday morning.
In the 2018 general election, 1,387 votes (0.08%) were cast as absentee in Benton County. That number was 2,845 absentee votes (1.9%) in the 2016 presidential election, according to the Clerk’s Office.
“I’ve seen absentee ballot number predictions all over the place,” Harrell said. “A lot will depend on the landscape moving into fall, but the message we want to convey right now is that if you think you’ll be uncomfortable in a polling site setting on Nov. 3, go ahead and get the absentee application as soon as possible.”
Thurston said voters can immediately begin requesting absentee ballots from his office or their local county clerks. The deadline to request an absentee ballot by mail or fax is Oct. 27, although a voter can pick up an absentee ballot in person until Nov. 2, the day before the election.
All absentee ballots must be returned by 7 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 3, to be counted, Thurston said.
Benton County will print absentee ballots per request. Information from the voter who requests the ballot is logged into the registration database, the signature on the application is compared to the one on file and a specific ballot is printed and mailed, Harrell said. Voters provide a signature when they register to vote.
State law allows for an absentee ballot to be opened seven days before an election to compare signatures, said Kim Dennison, Benton County election coordinator. The ballot-only envelope can’t be opened and processed until election day with results being printed and released after polls close at 7:30 p.m. Absentee votes cannot be counted until after the polls close. The votes are counted electronically.
When an absentee ballot goes out, it comes with a return envelope, voter statement and ballot-only envelope. Voters put the ballot in the ballot-only envelope and place it and the voter statement in the return envelope. This allows election officials to process the signatures without seeing the ballot to know how someone voted, Dennison said.
“We are hoping that we will be given more time to process the absentee ballots with numbers we are expecting,” Dennison said.
There are two elections in Benton County in August — a municipal election for mayor and board positions 5, 6 and 7 in Siloam Springs and a special election in Bethel Heights and Springdale about annexation — so it will be interesting to see what the breakdown between absentee and polling-site voting will be, Harrell said.
Price expected an increase of at least 40% of voter turnout for absentee ballot requests in that county for the November general election before Thurston announced his decision.
Washington County also will increase its blank ballot stock to print more absentee ballot requests, Price said. Normally, an election has about 2% of voters request an absentee ballot, Price said.
Benton County had 160,714 registered voters as of Wednesday and is adding 1,269 new voters a month so far this year, according to the County Clerk’s Office. Washington County had 134,398 registered voters as of Monday and is averaging 950 new voters a month, according to the County Clerk’s office.
“We were very relieved to hear that Secretary Thurston and Gov. Hutchinson made the announcement, which cleared up the confusion surrounding the availability of absentee ballots,” Harrell said. “Having a clear, consistent message statewide will encourage people to get their applications in as soon as possible and hopefully avoid an avalanche in October in the weeks leading up to the election.”
Benton County won’t have a firm number on early voting and election day voting sites until August, Dennison said.
“We are still getting a feel for how many poll workers are willing to still work, and which of our polling sites will allow social distancing measures in them,” she said.
About 80% of Benton County’s poll workers have indicated they will work the election season, while 15% have already said they won’t work and another 5% are undecided, Dennison said.
Benton County will recommend its poll workers wear masks, but they will not be required, Dennison said.
“By law, we cannot require voters to wear a mask when coming to vote. Again, we will encourage it, but cannot require it,” she said. “We hope to have masks available at the polling sites for voters if they come in and would like one.”
The Washington County Election Commission is stocking up on masks, shields cleaning supplies and other protective equipment, but it also won’t require poll workers or voters to wear masks for coming elections. The commission discussed upcoming elections at a meeting on June 22.
For questions about absentee ballots, visit the Arkansas Secretary of State website at www.sos.arkansas.gov.
Mike Jones may be reached by email at [email protected] .
“We are hoping that we will be given more time to process the absentee ballots with numbers we are expecting.”