Voters should be encouraged to wear facial coverings at the polls during the Nov. 3 general election, but counties don't have the authority to curtail access to polling places based on a person's health screening or refusal to use a mask, the state Board of Election Commissioners is advising officials on the county level.
"They can do some things, like if they want to set up voting booths or machines that are segregated," board Director Daniel Shults told the state panel on Wednesday. The topic was how to safely conduct an election in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Each of the 75 counties conducts federal, state and local elections for voters within that county, with some assistance and guidance from the state.
"If they have the resources, they can make masks available to voters," he said. "The key idea here is that the polls should be set up to accommodate social distancing."
It's important for county election officials to find out which poll workers are willing to work in the general election and which aren't,
because new poll workers may need to be recruited as replacements, he said.
Board member Bilenda Harris-Ritter said, "The poll workers need to make sure they understand that people cannot be required to wear masks to vote.
"I just want to make sure it is drilled into them in the training because that makes it an extra requirement to vote," she said.
Shults said: "I 100% agree. That's a potential trip-up point for this election, and we want to make sure that nobody has a lack of clarity on [it]."
Gov. Asa Hutchinson recently issued a statewide executive order requiring people to wear facial coverings in the event that they cannot adequately achieve social distancing, but it exempts people who are voting, assisting voters, serving as poll watchers or actively performing election administration duties. The order does, however, strongly encourage facial coverings.
The seven-member state Board of Election Commissioners, chaired by Secretary of State John Thurston, approved a three-page memo outlining strategies that it said county clerks and county boards of election commissioners should strongly consider implementing to mitigate any negative effects the coronavirus may have on elections.
"I think these steps are common-sense measures that can do the most to make the polls safe and accessible," Shults said.
The strategies address masks and access to the polls; assignment of polling locations; arrangement and operation of the polls; recruitment and retention of poll workers; canvassing and counting ballots; and absentee voting.
"The county does NOT have the discretion to limit a voter's access to the poll on the basis of a health screening or the failure of the voter to wear a facial covering," the state Board of Election Commissioners said in its memo to county election officials.
"Voters should be encouraged to wear facial coverings and, if the county has supplies available, the county may want to consider offering facial coverings to voters who do not have one," according to the state board's memo.
If a county does conduct a health screening, a voter who is identified as potentially ill should be sent to a ballot-marking device that is separated from the other devices, the state board said.
"[H]owever, THAT VOTER MUST BE ALLOWED TO VOTE," the state Board of Election Commissioners said with emphasis.
The state board recommends that a county require all election officials to wear facial coverings when at polling places or at other times when social distancing is not possible, such as when processing absentee ballots.
The board said it has concluded that Arkansas law permits residents to vote absentee if they are concerned that going to the polls threatens their health or the health of others as a result of the covid-19 pandemic.
"Consequently, the county should prepare for the possibility of sending and receiving an increased number of absentee ballots," according to the state board's three-page memo.
State law allows the county to canvass the outer envelopes of an absentee ballot prior to Election Day, the state board said.
"The SBEC strongly recommends that counties plan to take advantage of this flexibility and schedule absentee ballot canvassing as soon as permitted by law. It is essential that the county include in its notice of election the date, time and location of each pre-election canvassing of the outer envelopes of absentee ballots," according to the state board's guidance. "Remember, the county MAY NOT open the inner envelopes containing the ballot until 8:30 a.m. on election day."
The county should ensure it has substantially more absentee ballot materials for the Nov. 3 general election than needed in previous elections in order to accommodate the increased number of absentee ballot requests, the state board said, and the county should consider recruiting and training more absentee ballot clerks to ensure that absentee ballots are processed in a timely manner.
EXTRA FUNDS AVAILABLE
Thurston said that "my staff and I have been working with each county to provide the necessary resources for a safe and secure election" with the help of a $4.7 million federal grant under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act signed by President Donald Trump in March, and with state matching funds of $934,807.
"Due to the extensive preparations and protocols being put into place, I strongly believe the counties will provide polling sites that will be a safe environment for voters to cast their ballot," the Republican secretary of state said last week in a written statement.
Thurston spokesman Kevin Niehaus said the secretary of state's office has received responses from 74 of the state's 75 counties about their needs for the general election.
The grant will be used for helping mitigate increased absentee voting costs to the counties; for the purchase of personal protective equipment for election staffs or possible reimbursement of their costs for the equipment; for adding or relocating polling sites; and for public service announcements to educate voters, he said.
So far, the personal protective equipment that the office has purchased with the covid-19 grant includes KN95 reusable face masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, disinfecting spray, disinfecting wipes, disinfecting cleaner, face shields, 70% alcohol, microfiber towels, floor decals, plexiglass stand-up shields and stylus pens, Niehaus said.
"At this point, we have spent roughly $800k on PPE, but are still making purchases," he said last week in a written statement. "We estimate the total spent on PPE to between $800k-$1 million. This also includes the cost of transporting the equipment to the county."
These funds can only be spent on coronavirus-related items and can only be used for the general election, Niehaus said.
"We hope to begin delivering PPE to the counties in a few weeks," he said.
The state Board of Election Commissioners said it's critical that county election officials be instructed on procedures to ensure the polling sites are operated in a manner that ensures the safety of all voters and poll workers.
"Foremost among these policies should be the regular cleaning of any items voters may come in contact with," the state board said. Ideally, voting equipment should be sanitized after each use.
Poll workers should regularly wash or sanitize their hands or change their gloves and should wear a facial coverings when serving voters, according to the guidance.
Voters should be encouraged to use disposable styluses procured by the secretary of state's office to the greatest extent possible to avoid being required to touch any surface except the stylus and the ballot itself, according to the state board. The secretary of state's office has purchased more than 1 million styluses for the counties.
"In addition, poll workers should remind voters to maintain social distancing, to wash or sanitize their hands before or after entering the poll, and to refrain from greeting fellow voters with physical contact," the state board said in its memo to county election officials.
The state Board of Election Commissioners advised county election officials that they:
• Open the same number of polling locations that would have been opened had covid-19 not become a factor in this general election in order to ensure that voters are not unnecessarily condensed into fewer physical locations.
They may consider adding new early-voting polls to decrease the number of voters who will need to access a poll at a particular time; moving polling sites that don't allow for adequate social distancing to sites that allow for adequate social distancing; and contacting privately owned polling sites to ensure the property owners will permit the poll site to be placed in that location in the general election.
• Arrange polling places so the voters and poll workers are able to practice social distancing.
"Voting booths and voting equipment should be spaced no less than six feet apart, which is standard procedure in ordinary elections," the state board said. "The SBEC recommends marking six-foot intervals in the areas where the line [of voters] is intended to form indicating where individuals or family groups should stand. If possible, it is also beneficial for voters to enter and exit through different doors. ... The SBEC recommends the line of voters waiting to check in to the poll stop no less than 12 feet from the voter check-in table."
• Permit poll watchers and candidates or their representatives to be physically present to observe the exposure of the vote totals in the poll, the compiling of the county's results in the central tabulation room and the canvassing and counting of absentee and provisional ballots.
"The SBEC also recommends that credentialed media be permitted to observe and that other members of the public be permitted to the extent space allows while maintaining social distancing," the state board said. "If the space ordinarily used to tabulate voters or canvass early, absentee or provisional votes is overly restrictive in its capacity, the county should consider finding a larger venue. The county may also consider setting up a live stream of the process so that the general public may view the process without being physically present."