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Northwest Arkansas officials review election law changes

by Tom Sissom | July 22, 2021 at 7:00 a.m.
FILE — 'I Voted' stickers for early voters at the Benton County Election Commission office in Rogers in this Nov. 3, 2018, file photo.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Voters should see minimal changes in elections caused by new laws adopted in the 2021 session of the state Legislature, state and local election officials agreed Wednesday.

"I don't think there were very many major changes," Russ Anzalone, chairman of the Benton County Election Commission, said after the meeting. "There were a few that we'll have to publicize and educate voters on, but we always have to do that."

Members of election commissions from 10 counties in Northwest Arkansas, along with county clerks and members of their staffs and representatives of the State Board of Election Commissioners gathered in Fayetteville on Wednesday morning to renew a routine of regional election meetings that was interrupted in 2020 by the covid-19 pandemic.

Jennifer Price, election coordinator for Washington County, said the two biggest changes that votes will see deal with changes in state laws concerning the deadline for returning absentee ballots and in the voter ID requirements.

Act 249 of 2021 removes the "optional identity affirmation" provision that had been a part of state law since the voter ID law was adopted in 2016, Price said. The optional identity affirmation allowed a voter to have their ballot counted without providing the required photo ID.

Act 249 will require voters to have their photo ID in order to cast a ballot in person. Absentee voters will be required to provide a copy of their photo ID when they return their absentee ballot. If the required ID isn't provided absentee voters will have until noon on the Monday following an election to present the required ID to the county clerk of the county election commission.

Price said the number of voters who failed to present a photo ID has been decreasing every year since the requirement was adopted.

The second change Price noted concerns the deadline for returning absentee ballots in person by a vote or a designated bearer for that voter. The new law changes the deadline, moving it to the end of business hours on the Friday before the election.

The law had allowed absentee ballots to be returned in person up until the end of business hours at the county clerk's office on the day before an election. Ballots being returned by authorized agents of voters who are hospitalized or in long-term care facilities and medically unable to vote at a regular polling location can still be returned by hand until 7:30 p.m. on election day.

Price said designated bearers are typically family members of older voters who requested absentee ballots, forgot to mail them in and didn't want to try to deliver the ballots themselves. Authorized agents are typically used when voters are hospitalized just before an election. Price said the use of authorized agents has been rare.

Price also said the changes in election laws won't apply to the Aug. 10 special election in Fayetteville. The changes will go into effect July 28, she said. Price said the Fayetteville election was called for in June, and some voters have already requested and been sent absentee ballots.

"The election was called for in June before the changes take effect," Price said. "If the new law were used voters who requested an absentee ballot in June or July would receive a different set of instructions than someone who requested a ballot in August."

The group heard from state officials on other new laws and on the training the state will provide local election officials and poll workers next year.

Daniel Shults, director of the State Board of Election Commissioners, said the regional gatherings began with Northwest Arkansas and the state Board has since worked to organized similar meetings in other parts of the state. He said regional meetings have been held in Batesville, Jonesboro, Hope, Monticello and in Little Rock. He said the meetings are useful after legislative sessions to review changes in the laws and in the year before legislative sessions to give local election officials an opportunity to consider changes they might support or oppose.

"It's an opportunity for election commissioners and officials in many counties to get together to share information," Shults said.

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Election redistricting

Jennifer Price, Washington County’s election coordinator, told a group of Northwest Arkansas election officials on Wednesday she’s been in contact with the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission and tentatively arranged for a regional election meeting Sept. 22 to discuss redistricting. Price said she had also asked someone with the state who has experience in election mapping to attend the meeting. With the release of the 2020 Census numbers expected soon, she said, many election boundaries will have to be redrawn to reflect the population changes in the region.

Source: Washington County Election Commission

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