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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — 'I Voted' stickers for early voters at the Benton County Election Commission office in Rogers in this Nov. 3, 2018, file photo. ( Ben Goff)

A lawsuit over absentee voting in Arkansas during the covid-19 pandemic should be dismissed because the litigation is unnecessary, the head of the state Republican Party and a GOP state House of Representatives member argue in pleadings filed Monday.

Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb and state Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, have responded to the week-old lawsuit before the only defendant, Secretary of State John Thurston, has answered the suit.

The lawsuit seeks to ensure that voters who fear exposure to covid-19 do not have to vote at the polls where large crowds carry the risk of infection, but can cast absentee ballots without having to justify their reasons to authorities.

Absentee votes can be cast either by mail or by dropping off a ballot before Election Day. Arkansas law requires voters to explain, under penalty of perjury, why they need to vote absentee before being allowed to do so.

The plaintiffs, retired judge Ollie Neal, former state elections director Susan Inman and lawyer Janet Baker, want Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen to order Thurston to abide by absentee-voter guidelines established by a 1985 Arkansas Supreme Court ruling that require election officials to accept any truthful explanation for voting absentee.

Webb and House assert the suit is unnecessary because Thurston has already said that fear of covid-19 exposure is justification to vote absentee. They point to a public statement Thurston made two days after the lawsuit was filed.

In that statement, Thurston said a fear of covid-19 infection is a valid excuse to justify casting an absentee ballot, an acknowledgment that Webb and House contend negates the purpose of the suit.

"I understand many of our citizens may be assisting loved ones or are fearful of exposing a vulnerable family member to the virus. I understand that many are fearful of contacting or passing along the virus to others in the community," Thurston said.

"It is my opinion and belief that our current laws are sufficient to allow the registered voters of Arkansas the choice of going to their local polling location or requesting an absentee ballot from their local county clerk," Thurston continued. "We are fortunate that our lawmakers had the foresight in crafting our election laws to allow for times of being unavoidably absent whether by natural disaster, war, or global pandemic."

Although Webb and House are attorneys, they are being represented by attorney Greg Vardaman of Arkadelphia and George Ritter of Maumelle, the Republican party's deputy general counsel.

However, before Webb and House can get the judge to consider their arguments for dismissal, they first must persuade the judge that they should be allowed to join Thurston in defending the state election laws.

They contend they should be allowed to join the defense because they have interests in seeing the law is upheld that fellow Republican Thurston does not, among those interests being protecting the integrity of the voting public, minimizing voter fraud and ensuring that only qualified voters cast ballots.

None of those are the duty of the secretary of state, whose job is to make sure that the election laws established by the Legislature are followed, the lawsuit states.

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