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A federal judge on Monday evening denied a last-minute request to allow absentee ballots for today's runoff elections to be counted as long as they are postmarked by today and received within 10 days.

In denying a temporary restraining order requested Friday by the nonprofit Christian Ministerial Alliance, citing voting difficulties caused by the covid-19 pandemic, U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. noted Gov. Asa Hutchinson's March 20 executive order suspending some election laws.

The order was issued "to aid County officials and County Board of Election Commissioners to carry out their duties in respect to the March 31, 2020 election deadlines."

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

It allowed eligible voters to request absentee ballots from their counties of residence and for the ballots to be sent if the applications were received within seven days of Election Day.

"The effect of this Executive Order is to allow anyone to request an absentee ballot, regardless of whether they are unavoidably absent or unable to attend, and to allow them to request the absentee ballot by mail within seven days of an election," Moody said.

He noted that the Christian Ministerial Alliance wants Hutchinson to "do more to ensure that Arkansans are allowed to have their vote counted by absentee ballot," through a temporary restraining order. But, he said, the plaintiffs don't have legal standing to bring the lawsuit because they haven't articulated an injury suffered at the hands of the governor or the secretary of state, both of whom were named as defendants, or by any other state official.

"Plaintiffs' right to vote during this global pandemic have been made easier" by the governor's order, Moody said, by "suspending the normal prerequisites for requesting an absentee ballot."

He said that if the plaintiffs suffer any injury, it "will occur only if they did not follow the absentee voting requirements as loosened by the Governor or if they do not show up to vote at a designated voting place exercising the social distancing and other protections suggested by the State and the federal government."

Any such injury would be traceable not to the state but to the pandemic, Moody said.

The judge added that he agreed with the state "that a last-minute restructuring of the state-absentee voter law would add further confusion and uncertainty and impair the public's strong interest in the integrity of the electoral process."

The nonprofit group turned to the federal courts in an effort to extend the deadline by which the ballots must be received from 7:30 p.m. on Election Day until at least seven days after that, as long as they are mailed by that day. The suit cited state officials' contention that they lack the authority to alter the election deadline.

In a response filed Monday to the nonprofit group's request, Arkansas Deputy Solicitor General Vincent Wagner wrote, "Given the fluidity of the Covid-19 crisis, state officials are best suited to calibrate a proper response that respects state law -- particularly regarding politically sensitive issues like election procedures."

Twelve counties in Arkansas have runoffs scheduled today. They are Jefferson, Arkansas, Benton, Conway, Craighead, Garland, Grant, Greene, Hot Spring, Logan, Saline and White.

The lawsuit, backed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York City, asserted that the election day receipt deadline "unconstitutionally burdens voters, particularly black voters." It noted that Americans have been strongly urged by federal and state authorities to socially distance themselves during the unprecedented national crisis, and that voters shouldn't have to "make the untenable choice between their safety and potentially endangering the lives or others and exercising their fundamental right to vote."

Wagner noted that just two weeks ago, a Florida judge denied a similar request. He urged Moody to do the same "and refuse to fundamentally alter absentee voting in Arkansas less than a day before the polls open."

Citing myriad other deadlines in the state's electoral calendar, Wagner wrote, "Changing even a single deadline by 10 days risk causing effects that ripple through an entire election cycle."

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge said the decision provides clarity for voters and respect the decisions of state officials in the wake of the covid-19 pandemic.

"Arkansans can trust that the Governor, the Secretary of State and I--along with every other elected official in this State--are working day and night to protect their interests in the midst of this unprecedented crisis," she said in a statement issued Monday night by her office.

Metro on 03/31/2020

Print Headline: Judge rejects absentee-ballot extension for runoff

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