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Think safety for runoffs, counties told; officials prep for elections, but some calling for delay

by Dale Ellis, Michael R. Wickline | March 17, 2020 at 7:17 a.m.
In this file photo Secretary of State John Thurston speaks to supporters on Nov. 6, 2018 after winning the election for secretary of state.

The state Board of Election Commissioners on Monday advised officials in a dozen counties to consider several strategies -- including absentee voting -- to mitigate any negative effects that the coronavirus may have on their March 31 runoffs.

These options include: consolidating polling sites; notifying voters that they can request an absentee ballot; refraining from using at-risk poll workers; and ensuring poll workers take appropriate preventive measures, the board said in a letter to county clerks and county boards of election commissioners.

Arkansas law doesn't allow a county board of election commissioners, the county clerk or county judge to unilaterally cancel or postpone in-person voting, the board's letter noted.

Secretary of State John Thurston, the board chairman, told the board that "to our knowledge, there is no provision giving at least the secretary of state or this board the authority to postpone the election."

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Other states have postponed their elections because of the virus.

The board opted to advise the governor and attorney general that it has significant concerns about the danger that coronavirus poses to Arkansans participating in runoffs.

But Jefferson County Election Commissioner Stuart "Stu" Soffer said the board's actions were not sufficient because the courthouse there will be closed through the end of this week as a health precaution.

"The election is in 14 days," Soffer said Monday morning. "Early voting begins March 24. With the courthouse closed down this week, that means the county clerk can't get absentee ballot notifications or the ballots themselves mailed out to voters, and we can't even start programming the voting machines because the media we use is being mailed to the courthouse."

But on Monday afternoon, Jefferson County Clerk Shawndra Taggart said she and her staff were working at the courthouse trying to prepare mail-outs to voters in the precincts involved in two runoffs, one for Pine Bluff City Council Ward 2 and the other for Jefferson County Quorum Court District 13.

"It's going to be hard, but we're going to do what we have to do to get the information out to the voters," Taggart said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to get the letter out by tomorrow."

Taggart said she will have to arrange for a commercial printer to generate the letters to voters, and she said her office will also use other methods to reach voters.

She said that if nothing changes, people will have the options of voting absentee or early instead of going to a polling site on Election Day.

"We're just hoping to have more people vote absentee to cut down on the traffic in here," she said. "But we're going to have gloves and masks, we'll have the sanitizer, and we'll have the wipes to wipe down the screen between voters. For now, nothing has changed, so early voting is still planned to go on just like before all of this."

The other 11 counties holding March 31 runoffs are Arkansas, Benton, Conway, Craighead, Garland, Grant, Greene, Hot Spring, Lonoke, Saline and White, according to a list from the board's staff.

Clerks in several counties said they're proceeding carefully, encouraging as many voters as possible to utilize absentee ballots.

In Benton County, County Clerk Betsy Harrell said she expects to see a significant uptick in absentee ballot requests.

"If we have to have a pajama pizza party to prepare ballots all night, we will," she said.

Craighead County Clerk Kade Holliday said election workers will be even more diligent about cleaning during the runoff there.

He said he's very concerned about the coronavirus' impact on the election, and last week he sent a letter imploring Gov. Asa Hutchinson to take action to delay the runoffs or enable counties to conduct them solely by mail.

All voters are eligible to cast an absentee ballot if they will be "unavoidably absent from his or her polling place" or "unable to attend the polls on election day because of illness or disability" under Arkansas Code Annotated 7-5-402, the state Board of Election Commissioners said in its letter.

The state board "is taking the position that warnings from public health officials to avoid large gatherings of people when possible is a sufficient basis for voters, who ordinarily would not qualify for absentee voting," according to the letter.

Board Director Daniel Shults said there is a March 24 deadline for receipt of an absentee ballot application by mail, fax or email.

The deadline is March 30 for voters to submit applications in person or through a third party.

Commissioner Bilenda Harris-Ritter noted that Georgia and Louisiana have moved their primaries, while Alabama's secretary of state on Monday asked that state's attorney general for an opinion about postponing a runoff.

"We are in a situation, where asking our governor and attorney general what could be done to postpone it ... is about all we can do as a board," she said.

"The candidates can't go out and campaign right now," Harris-Ritter added. "That's a huge problem for them. It really makes me question how legitimate these runoffs would actually be under the circumstances because of all the concerns people have about it."

However, "Even though this is not the ideal time to conduct an election, the public and candidates would be harmed if the election date was postponed to an undetermined point in the future," Gov. Hutchinson said in a statement. "We are continuing to engage in commerce and business and the election should not be an exception."

Information for this article was contributed by Hunter Field of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Metro on 03/17/2020

Print Headline: Think safety for runoffs, counties told

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