- A record number of Arkansas voters cast ballots before Election Day
- Election workers throughout the state were ready for this unusual year
- So far, so good, the State Board of Election Commissioners reports
- Poll watchers agree, things are looking fine out there!
Never mind an unprecedented pandemic and unpredictable presidential politics. Election workers say Arkansans can have faith in a fair and relatively quick vote count.
By offering a vote-from-home option for everyone and making some tweaks to locations and times for both early and Election Day voting, Arkansas cleared the way for what’s already a record turnout. By Monday, Nov. 2, 854,405 Arkansans already voted, either by mail-in ballot or early voting.
VOTING FROM HOME
Of the 130,176 mail-in ballots Arkansans requested for the 2020 general election, 113,250 made their way back to county officials by Monday. More will pile up before the 7:30 p.m. Election Day deadline. Compare those numbers to the last presidential election. In 2016, no pandemic was raging across the country and only 29,902 Arkansans sent ballots from home.
County election commissions were ready for the huge numbers of ballots coming in the mail, Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners Director Daniel Shults said. His Little Rock-based staff trains county-level election officials and staff throughout the state to make sure they know how to apply state election laws and procedures.
“We haven’t really gotten many questions because counties have been working with this process for a long time. It’s more a question of scale,” he said.
Election officials in Faulkner and Union counties confirmed Shults’s assessment. They reported they were ready with extra staff to process ballots coming in by mail. Gov. A directive allowing counties to open absentee ballots early fended off what could have been a last-minute crush. Election workers cannot count absentee ballots until Election Day, but they can check signatures, voter statements and ID ahead of time to confirm ballots are valid and ready for the counting machine.
What happens when absentee voters forget to include a photocopy of their ID? That’s a sticky question, and the answer varies from county to county, Shults said. Voters who don’t include ID and also fail to sign the identification portion of the voter statement might still have a shot, but it would take luck and work. County election commissions can notify those voters and ask them to bring valid ID to clear their ballots in time for counting. But there’s no guarantee.
“That’s one of the challenges of voting an absentee ballot. You’re not necessarily guaranteed to get the notice in time,” Shults explained. “We do encourage the counties to give notice if at all possible.” Absentee voters have until the Monday after Election Day to “cure” their ballots by presenting valid identification to election commissioners.
In Union County, Election Commissioner Janelle Williams said poll workers were having lots of luck calling absentee voters who forgot to include copies of ID. Most of them have come right over to present the required identification, she said. In Pulaski County, on the other hand, election commissioners won’t notify voters about missing ID until on or after Election day, meaning the window to “cure” those ballots with valid ID is narrow.
Election officials try their best to help voters when they can, Shults said. “I have the opportunity to work with county election officials and I believe, to a person, they want the system to work as well as possible,” he said. “They are committed to counting every vote they’re able to count.”
Even voters infected with the COVID virus are casting ballots. In Pulaski County, Assistant Chief Deputy Clerk Debra Mitchell said people were taking advantage of state law that allows for designated bearers. The law allows those bearers to deliver ballots for people who unexpectedly find themselves unable to get to the polls. “If their intention was to vote early or in person but something happened where they couldn’t, then they could have a designated bearer,” she explained. She knew of at least three Pulaski County voters who took advantage of this last-minute provision last week.
Pulaski County Circuit County Clerk Terri Hollingsworth gave her voters an extra perk. Hollingsworth invited Pulaski voters a drive-thru drop-off for ballots they wanted to deliver in person rather than through the mail.
Poll watchers posted up at early voting sites throughout Pulaski County gave promising reports of drama-free voting.
Lauren Cowles spent much of her time over the past week volunteering as a poll worker in North Little Rock and Sherwood. Candidates, political parties and issue campaigns send poll watchers to make sure Arkansas voters can cast ballots without any obstruction.
“We’re basically just there to be an advocate for democracy and advocate for making sure that as many people as possible can vote,” Cowles said. That means looking out for any deliberate obstacles or hold-ups that might discourage people from voting. So far, so good, she said Monday.
“I kind of went in prepared for battle,” she said. “I don’t relish confrontation at all, so I steeled myself that I might need to be an advocate for somebody. I have not had to do that at all.”
She witnessed some heartbreak. A few hopeful but sporadic voters discovered their names were purged from the rolls. Young voters who filled out online registration forms but didn’t physically mail them in got turned away.
Voters who need to change their addresses had to go through what Cowles thinks is an unnecessarily long wait. A volunteer with For AR People, Cowles said she plans to suggest legislation to fix Arkansas voters’ inconvenience understandable confusion.
Overall, though, she gave poll workers rave reviews. “It really has, for me, just seemed like a lot of people working really hard to be sure that everybody can vote. Which has really made me feel good about democracy. I know that’s not always the case, I know that voter suppression is real, but I haven’t seen it.”
Arkansas elections expert Susan Inman helped run Arkansas elections on both the county and state level for decades. A lot of first-time absentee voters wobbled a bit. “This is not something most of these people have ever done before. The instructions are not just simple-simple,” she said. She peeked in on several polling sites and at the Pulaski County Courthouse where workers were processing ballots. All looked to be running as planned, she said.
With 14 trips as an international election watcher under her belt, Inman offers significant expertise. While she’s not sure Election Day will go off without a hitch, she believes election workers are doing a good job. She predicts any conflict won’t stem from inaccurate tallies or failure to follow laws and procedures. “I do feel confident in our system,” she said.