The 2020 General Election in Arkansas: what to expect and trying to navigate the unexpected

By Lindsey Bailey French, AAC Legal Counsel

A glimpse of any commercial break or news broadcast on network television leaves no doubt — presidential election season has arrived. Presidential elections bring out more voters, so others on the ballot are clamoring to make sure voters who might otherwise be uninformed on their race have at least heard of their name. Besides candidates for President, others such as Congressional offices, state General Assembly seats, justice of the peace districts, city offices, and school board positions will be decided on Nov. 3.

Additionally, three issues referred to voters by the Arkansas General Assembly will appear on the ballot: Issue 1, to permanently continue the collection of an existing half-penny sales tax for highways, roads, and bridges, which will otherwise sunset in 2023; Issue 2, to set term limits for members of the Arkansas General Assembly to 12 years, with certain cooling off provisions; and Issue 3, which amends the processes by which legislative referrals and signature-petition led initiatives are qualified to be placed on the ballot. Issues 2 and 3 are currently being challenged in the same lawsuit in the Pulaski County Circuit Court, seeking an injunction to keep them from appearing on the ballot, claiming the ballot titles are insufficient and misleading.

Two other signature-driven initiatives were recently struck down by the Arkansas Supreme Court and will not appear on the ballot. The Court found that both the initiative to establish open primaries as well as the one to create an independent redistricting committee lacked sufficient signatures to appear on the November ballot. A third initiative to expand Arkansas’s casinos from four to sixteen also failed to make it onto the ballot after its sponsor dropped its lawsuit against the Secretary of State over insufficient signatures. Finally, a rare veto referendum, known as Issue 6, sought to overturn a 2019 law passed by the General Assembly to allow optometrists to perform certain eye surgeries. The Supreme Court has also struck this referendum from the ballot due to lack of sufficient signatures. Therefore, it appears at the time of this article that Issues 1, 2, and 3 will be the only ballot issues counted in the general election.

Additionally, there has been an exceptional amount of national media coverage over the safety and security of our elections, particularly when it comes to mail-in voting. Procedures for mail-in voting vary from state to state, and it is important to know the law and security precautions taken in your state. In Arkansas, an unprecedented number of residents are expected to vote by mail. The process in Arkansas is called “absentee voting,” and has been in practice for decades. Under this system, a registered voter must send their local county clerk an application for a ballot. The county clerk then verifies that the resident applying for a ballot is a properly registered voter, and then provides them a ballot. This can be done either by mail, or by designated bearer (or authorized agent if the voter is in an assisted living facility).

Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued an executive order making it crystal clear that concerns about the COVID-19 virus are a proper excuse for being “unavoidably absent” from the polls to qualify under Arkansas law for an absentee ballot. However, I am unaware of any time in Arkansas history where a court has invalidated a voter’s ballot because their excuse for being absent from the polls was legally insufficient. Additionally, the state has received CARES Act funds, a portion to be used for the sole purpose of providing safe and secure elections. The Secretary of State’s office has provided personal protective equipment to counties to make polling sites safe, and counties will be able to apply for reimbursement for other COVID-19 related expenses incurred.

The Arkansas State Board of Election Commissioners has issued guidance to the counties with clear procedures on the processing of absentee ballots as well as best practices for use during in-person early and election-day voting. Those preferring to vote in person are encouraged to vote early. Early voting locations may vary from election day locations, so officials recommend that you check with your local county clerk’s office or the Secretary of State’s website to find the location(s) where you can vote early, up to two weeks before election day starting Oct. 19. Voting early allows you the peace of mind of knowing that your vote was received and counted, while also avoiding long lines and unnecessary exposure to large crowds that may accumulate on election day.

Voters are strongly encouraged to wear a mask and maintain proper social distancing while in lines to protect themselves and others. The most important function of a mask is to prevent its wearer from spreading the virus via water droplets to others; wearing one might prevent you from unknowingly spreading the virus to others, including high-risk individuals. It is also worth noting that Arkansas prohibits voters from electioneering within 100 feet of a polling place, and this would include wearing masks that contain the name of a candidate or issue that is on the ballot. Masks will be provided at polling sites for those who need one.

County clerks, county election commissioners, and other election officials across the state have worked tirelessly for months to ensure that Arkansas elections will be handled safely and securely. Poll workers at voting sites receive little compensation and are doing their best to follow the training that they have received. In conclusion, we can all do our part: if voting by absentee, apply for and return your ballot early rather than waiting until the last minute; if voting in person, strongly consider voting early to avoid long lines and large crowds; and finally, no matter how you choose to exercise your right to vote, please practice patience, kindness, and respect for others who are all simply trying to do the best they can in the given the circumstances.

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