With covid-19 creeping across Arkansas, voters will begin going to the polls Tuesday to cast early votes in the state’s primary runoffs.
The situation is unprecedented. The Arkansas Constitution provides no mechanism for postponing the election, which is taking place during a pandemic that has infected more than 266,000 people worldwide, including 15,000 in the United States and 118 in Arkansas.
In Pine Bluff, where Arkansas’ first case of covid-19 was confirmed, poll workers are skittish, and one quit.
Across Arkansas, hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes will be deployed at polling places, and electronic voting machines, countertops, tables and anything else people touch will be cleaned regularly.
One county opted for paper ballots. Another is handing out pencils so voters can use the erasers on the touch screens of voting machines instead of their fingers.
Another county is having drive-thru voting. Some courthouses are closed to the public but will let people in one at a time to vote.
Voting will continue in the 12 Arkansas counties through Election Day, which is March 31.
At the direction of the state Board of Election Commissioners, officials in those counties are working to limit the amount of contact between voters and poll workers out of fear of the coronavirus.
Holding runoffs are Arkansas, Benton, Conway, Craighead, Garland, Grant, Greene, Hot Spring, Jefferson, Lonoke, Saline and White counties.
Officials in those counties have worked to establish sanitation procedures, cut the number of polling sites, schedule poll workers — most of whom are considered at high risk to the virus because of their age — and promote absentee balloting in an effort to keep as many voters as possible away from the polls while simultaneously working to safeguard their right to cast a ballot.
While officials hope more voters than usual will opt to vote by absentee ballot, they are preparing for an unknown number to vote in person.
Efforts to minimize the risk vary from county to county, with some election officials opting to have ballots cast at a single site on Election Day.
Jefferson County remains one of the hardest-hit counties with more than 10 confirmed cases of covid-19.
There are two races on the ballot — one for Pine Bluff City Council and one for Jefferson County justice of the peace.
“We’ve lowered the number of polling sites to lessen the number of poll workers and the exposure factor,” Election Administrator Sven Hippsaid Thursday. “We’ve come up with a health/safety plan to require gloves and alcohol wipes at each polling site, and as of now, everything is programmed and ready to walk out the door for the election.”
Hipp said that after the first covid-19 case was discovered in Pine Bluff, he began hearing from concerned poll workers as well as officials in charge of the locations the county uses as polling sites, many of whom were unwilling to risk the possibility of exposure. As the threat level continues to rise in the state, concern is also rising, he said.
“I’ve had three [poll workers] call today and express concern after they raised the number [of covid-19 cases] to 62,” Hipp said Thursday. “One poll worker actually quit, and two others wanted to know if we are still having the election with all of this.”
Hipp said at the moment he is able to fully staff the county’s six polling locations.
In Benton County, voters will be handed pencils, but not to write on paper ballots. They’ll be instructed to use the eraser end on the touch screen of electronic voting machines.
The pencils will be sanitized between voters, said Russell Anzalone, chairman of the Benton County Election Commission.
Anzalone said that with three early voting locations and six polling places open on Election Day, he doesn’t foresee overcrowding being a problem.
“It’s a runoff election,” he said. “We are really not inundated with voters for runoff elections.”
Samantha Hufford, deputy Benton County clerk, said 22,000 notices were mailed Tuesday to let people know they could vote by absentee ballot, and as of Thursday, the office had processed 118 applications. Many more are expected, she said.
“We are trying to get people to vote absentee just to cut down on the traffic,” Hufford said.
HOT SPRING COUNTY
In Hot Spring County, among other precautions, paper ballots will be used in the Glen Rose School District election so voters don’t have to touch the screens of voting machines, said Election Coordinator Liz Pfeiffer. If handicapped voters need a machine to vote, they will have access to one, she said.
She said the number of people allowed into the voting center in Malvern would be limited to 10. That probably will include three staff members and two poll workers at any given time. Pfeiffer said only the younger, healthy poll workers will be working this election.
And she said that for this election, the only polling place will be at the voting center in Malvern.
“We felt like we needed to be able to contain and monitor the situation,” she said.
In neighboring Saline County, which also has voters participating in the Glen Rose School District runoff, Election Coordinator Allison Cain said voters will cast ballots at a single location both for early voting and on March 31 — at the Benton Vote Center across from the Saline County Courthouse in Benton.
Cain said she has had no trouble securing poll workers to staff the voting center.
“The ones that we have basically have no underlying conditions that make them susceptible to catching anything,” she said. “It’s pretty much our regulars who normally work the Benton Vote Center, so we haven’t had any issues at all.”
Sarah Smith, the Garland County clerk, said Wednesday that she had sent out 70 absentee ballots for the Lakeside School Board election and had requests for 25 more.
“We’ve definitely had an increase in the requests,” she said. “We have asked people to request absentee ballots if they could based on the recommendation of the state Board of Elections.”
In White County, which has a runoff for Big Creek Township constable, officials plan to utilize three polling sites.
“We normally have five locations for that township, but due to all of this we have consolidated,” said Election Coordinator Tara McKnight. “All of our poll workers are older, so we’re trying to limit their risk as much as possible.”
McKnight said though some had expressed concerns, she had no difficulty lining up poll workers, and as recently as a week ago all were still committed to work.
“When we consolidated, I talked to them last week to be sure everyone was still OK,” she said. “They were just like, ‘Well, we’re fine.’ Everyone is still on board.”
For voters who opt to show up for early voting in person in Lonoke County, the process will be conducted in a manner guaranteed to keep voters more than 6 feet apart, said Election Coordinator Kirsten Shipp.
“We’re going to be doing early voting, drive-thru, at the courthouse,” Shipp said. “We care most about our voters and we don’t want to deny them the right to vote, so we’re doing everything we can to safeguard their right to vote and their safety while doing so.”
On Election Day, voters will vote at the South Bend Fire Department in Jacksonville.
Voters in Grant County will have their temperatures taken outside the courthouse, said Election Coordinator Debbie More. Those who have a normal temperature will cast their ballot on a touchscreen machine, while those who have a fever will vote by paper. A justice of the peace seat is on the ballot.
“We’re only putting up one machine and it will be sterilized after each voter,” More said. “We’ll limit courthouse access to one voter at a time as well.”
In Arkansas County, in the DeWitt School Board Zone 7 runoff, County Clerk Melissa Wood said that during early voting voters will be required to call a number posted on the door, which will be locked, and they will be allowed in one at a time to cast their vote on a paper ballot. She said voters will not be screened before being allowed in.
“We can’t deny anyone their right to vote, whether they have a fever, a cough or whatever,” Wood said. “What we’ll do is — wearing gloves, masks and all of that — we’ll let them in one at a time to vote, and then we’ll sanitize the area behind each voter. Then we’ll allow the next person to come inside the building.”
Kristi Rawls, the election coordinator in Greene County, said there are two constable races on the ballot.
Roscoe Wood, a candidate in one of those races, died Feb. 29 during early voting. He got the same number of votes as his opponent, Claude Graves, in the March 3 election for constable for Crowley’s Ridge Township, so the two are in a runoff.
“It’s actually pretty heated,” said Rawls. “There’s just been a lot of social media talk.”
Craighead County is having a Republican primary runoff for District 53 state representative.
Jennifer Clack, the Craighead County election coordinator, said the county will have forehead thermometers available for election workers to make sure they don’t have a fever.
Clack said she has a total of 23 election workers scheduled to work the two polling places during early voting — the courthouse in Jonesboro and the courthouse annex in Lake City — and seven polling places on Election Day.
A Democratic primary runoff is being held for an at-large Morrilton City Council seat, said Debbie Hartman, the Conway County clerk.
Hartman said the courthouse in Morrilton has been closed to the public, so early voting will be held at an annex across the alley from the courthouse.
“It’s where our voting machines are stored,” she said.
On Election Day, voting will be held at the Morrilton Christian Center.
“We found some young poll workers who are going to be running it that day,” said Hartman. “We’re going to do everything we can to protect the public and ourselves.”