Northwest Arkansas election officials see health issues during voting

"I Voted" stickers for early voters Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, at the Benton County Election Commission office in Rogers.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County election officials are preparing for a "worst-case scenario" in which they may handle more than 40,000 absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 general election.

The Election Commission on Thursday authorized Jennifer Price, the county's election director, to buy 90,000 pieces of ballot stock, the special paper used in printing ballots. Price said she expects a two-page ballot in November, so 90,000 pieces of stock would cover 45,000 ballots.

Price estimated ordering enough additional pieces of ballot stock to cover 42,000 of the county's 132,000 registered voters would cost more than $10,000. The county will be able to use it in future elections if it isn't needed in 2020.

Price told the commission the county would handle about 2,000 absentee ballots in a typical general election year. Commissioners agreed the county needs to be prepared for an increase in absentee ballots with the uncertainty surrounding the covid-19 pandemic and the need to limit public gatherings.

"I think you've got to think of the worst-case scenario and plan for that," Commissioner Max Deitchler said during the meeting.

In Benton County, no decision has been made on increasing stocks of material for the Nov. 3 election, according to Kim Dennison, election coordinator. Dennison said the county handled about 2,500 absentee ballots in the 2016 general election.

Price said she's also working with the Washington County County Clerk's office to prepare information on absentee voting. She said it's important people can find information on how to vote absentee. They will have to request a ballot. None will be mailed to voters automatically.

The commission also discussed the need to have masks for all of Washington County's poll workers and possibly having masks for voters to reduce the spread of the virus while voting or waiting in line to vote. Keeping social distancing measures iat polling places and handling lines of voters outside those locations were also discussed.

Deitchler said the county should provide masks for poll workers to wear and encourage voters to wear masks and make them available if possible.

"I know a lot of people, myself included, would not feel comfortable going into a polling place if people are not wearing masks," he said.

The commission decided to acquire masks, plastic shields to separate voters from election workers, hand sanitizer and dispensers and other items needed to conduct an election under the health emergency guidelines.

The county plans to use them at the Aug. 11 special election on the question of consolidating Bethel Heights into Springdale. Price said some of the items, such as the plastic shields, can be reused and the cost of those items and other material related to the covid-19 emergency may be eligible for reimbursement from the state.

Election assistance

Arkansas has received about $5 million in federal money for election assistance under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Counties may be reimbursed for election costs associated with the covid-19 pandemic.

Source: Washington County Election Commission