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Elections reform legislation a hot topic for 93rd General Assembly

By Lindsey Bailey French, AAC Legal Counsel

The 93rd General Assembly has entered a long recess until redistricting legislation can be taken up this fall due to delayed census information from the federal government. There were a handful of hot topics this session, including law enforcement reform and second amendment rights, but maybe none more popular than elections reform. Since few if any state legislators have ever worked to conduct an election, it can be difficult trying to balance the transparency and efficiency in elections lawmakers seek with the mechanics of running an election and the constitutional protections afforded all eligible voters. Some notable Acts that passed and will become law are discussed below.

Act 128 — Rep. Andrew Collins, Sen. Breanne Davis; County Board of Election Commissioners are now required to publish sample ballots on the Secretary of State’s website 20 days before primary or general elections and 10 days before all other elections. According to testimony by the Secretary of State’s Office, over 50 counties are already doing this.

Act 249 — Rep. Mark Lowery, Sen. Alan Clark; Currently, Arkansas Voter ID law allows a voter to execute a sworn statement identifying themself rather than providing a copy of their state-issued ID. This law removes that option and requires a copy of state-issued photo ID.

Act 349 — Rep. Justin Boyd, Sen. Bob Ballinger; Seeking uniformity in candidate filing periods, this Act sets the start of the November school board election filing period 90 days before the election. It also removes a $3 “ballot fee” that existed for certain community college candidates.

Act 610 — Sen. Jason Rapert, Rep. Spencer Hawks; This is a lengthy Act that makes numerous changes, with a few notable ones. First, it sets the annual school election in odd-numbered years for either the second Tuesday in May or the second Tuesday in November. It also sets forth four dates each year on which nearly all special elections can be held: For presidential election years – the second Tuesday of March, May, August or November; and for all other years – the second Tuesday of February, May, August or November.

Act 727 — Sen. Kim Hammer, Rep. Mark Lowery; This Act amends the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to add an exemption to “public records.” Ballots, other than sample ballots, unless otherwise ordered by a court of law, are not considered public records under FOIA. This exemption does not apply to poll watchers during elections.

Act 728 — Sen. Kim Hammer, Rep. Karilyn Brown; This law prohibits a person from entering or remaining in an area within 100 feet of the primary entrance to a building used as a polling place, except for those entering or leaving for a lawful purpose. The purpose of this Act is to prevent loitering near the entrance to a polling place.

Act 736 — Rep. Mark Lowery, Sen. Kim Hammer; This Act contains several “technical corrections” as well as some substantive changes. It lowers the number of ballots a person can possess from 10 to four, with possession of more than four creating a rebuttable presumption of intent to defraud. It requires the State Board of Election Commissioners to create and approve and county elections officials to use a uniform voter statement and prohibits county clerks or other elections officials from distributing unsolicited absentee ballots or applications. County clerks must provide the county board of election commissioners a daily count of absentee applications and ballots received, either weekly or as requested by the board. The Act sets forth rules for access to documents contained in the absentee inner ballot, including prohibiting access to the county clerk unless granted by the county board of election commissioners. It mandates how absentee ballots returned by bearer should be verified and also prohibits voter statements from being made available to the public prior to the day after the delivery of unofficial election results to the Secretary of State.

Act 973 — Sen. Kim Hammer, Rep. Jack Ladyman; This law changes the deadline to obtain and return absentee ballots in person at the clerk’s office to no later than close of business Friday before election day, rather than on election day. There is an exception for authorized agents of voters with health emergencies, who may still request absentee ballots by 1:30 p.m. on the day of the election and return them by 7:30 p.m. on election day.

Act 974 — Sen. Kim Hammer, Rep. Jack Ladyman; This Act bars a person convicted of certain felony or misdemeanor election violations from serving as an election official in subsequent elections. It also creates a hotline through the Attorney General’s Office for citizens to report alleged elections violations. The Attorney General’s Office will report its submissions and findings to the Legislative Joint Performance Review Committee, which will have the authority to recommend that the State Board of Election Commissioners investigate and/or take remedial actions as needed. In cases of severe violations, the Board can decertify an election official or step in to conduct an election if the violations are widespread.

Act 980 — Rep. Nicole Clowney, Sen. Breanne Davis; It creates a definition of “secured voter” including certain victims of domestic violence who may register with the county clerk to have their address of record exempt from public information. The Secretary of State shall promulgate rules for the implementation of this process.

Act 1022 — Sen. Alan Clark, Rep. Spencer Hawks; This law requires the county board of election commissioners to prepare a report of both provisional and rejected ballots cast in the county for each election, broken down by early voting, election day voting, the number of provisional ballots rejected or included, and the reason for each rejected ballot. The report is to be submitted to the Secretary of State within 30 days after each election, and within 60 days the State Board of Election Commissioners shall compile the information and make the reports publicly available.

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