FAYETTEVILLE -- A record-breaking general election turnout -- during a pandemic -- proved absentee voting can go smoothly when given enough time for the labor-intensive process of verifying ballots, local election officials said.
The election also highlighted some familiar problems that bedevil every election, they said.
The 2020 general election was a case of hoping for the best while preparing for the worst, Benton County Clerk Betsy Harrell said.
The preparation paid off, she said. Despite covid-19 and the record turnout, the election went smoothly, she said.
"We were overprepared," she said. "I still have 20,000 absentee ballot applications because we ordered more than we needed, but I don't mind. I'll keep them and use them."
Much of the credit for the success goes to residents and businesses who answered the election commission's calls for help, said Jennifer Price, election director for Washington County.
"Half of our poll workers were brand new," Price said.
"We sent out notice after notice before the election saying we needed poll workers and they responded."
Companies such as Procter and Gamble gave employees a day off with pay if they were willing to work the polls, she said. Students at Springdale and Fayetteville were allowed to spend school time working polls, she said.
"I had one case where a grandmother, a mother and a granddaughter were all working at the same location," Price said.
Some of the changes made to accommodate a large voter turnout during the pandemic might be worth continuing, officials said.
Sean Murphy, 41, moved to Bentonville from Washington state in September 2019. He went to an Arkansas revenue office to get a driver's license and change his car registration.
The employees asked if he wanted to register to vote, too. He did.
Then Murphy fell into a pitfall in his adopted state's voter registration that entrapped at least 50 or so others in Benton County seeking to participate in the Nov. 3 general election, according to the county clerk. The same problem crops up every election, Harrell said.
He went to vote early, but wasn't on the voter rolls. He still got to vote, thanks to the persistence of local election officials, he said.
They knew just where to look -- on a backup list of people from all over the state who registered to vote at a state revenue office but, for some reason, didn't get assigned to any county or had some other problem with their registration. The state Department of Finance and Administration, which oversees registration at revenue offices, provides the list.
"I want to make it very clear the people at the polling place in Benton County and the clerk's office did a really nice job of helping me," he said.
The problem has persisted for years, according to election officials in Benton and Washington counties.
Spokesmen for the Secretary of State's Office, which oversees elections, and the Finance Department said the problem is statewide.
More than 105,000 people have registered to vote at revenue offices in Arkansas so far this year, said Scott Hardin, spokesman for Finance and Administration. Almost all will show up on voter rolls, but an undetermined percentage won't.
The high number of people moving to Northwest Arkansas makes the problem more noticeable here, local election officials said.
Registrations taken at revenue offices are collected by Finance and Administration and sent to the Secretary of State's Office daily. The office distributes each voter on that list to the appropriate county clerk in the state's 75 counties. The electronically distributed information is put on local voter rolls.
Each step contains the potential for error.
"There isn't really a place where we can say, 'This is where the hole is,'" said spokesman Kevin Niehaus of the Secretary of State's Office.
Any mistake such as a typo on their registration at any point in the process will interfere, he and election officials said. The omissions have remained a difficult-to-cure problem between the two state offices since registering to vote at revenue offices became federal law in 2002, Hardin said.
Everyone registering to vote at revenue offices is told he should get a confirmation mail from local election authorities within two weeks and to check his registration if he doesn't get it, Hardin said. Not all of them do, he and others said.
Fifty is a conservative estimate of people who experienced the problem in Benton County this year, Harrell said. The real number of missed registrations from revenue offices could easily be twice that, she said. Often, people leave a polling site after finding they're not on voter rolls without inquiring further, she said.
"Even if you get the problem worked out, it still causes unnecessary delay," Harrell said.
"Every time we have poll worker training, somebody asks if this problem has been fixed yet," Price said. "We get that question every election cycle."
Gov. Asa Hutchinson used his pandemic emergency powers to modify some election procedures. Those changes will lapse when he declares the emergency over.
His Aug. 7 executive order allowed any Arkansas voter to request an absentee ballot, citing the pandemic as a reason. Arkansas law restricts absentee ballots -- in normal times -- to those who are unavoidably unable to vote in person.
Hutchinson predicted a great increase in the use of absentee ballots in his order. He was correct. Benton County issued 16,155 absentee ballots, and Washington County issued 12,965 for the general election, about five times the normal number in each county for a presidential election, voter records show.
The governor's executive order also extended from seven days to 15 days the time county election officials can open absentee ballots' outer envelopes to check signatures. Election officials received 11 extra hours on election day to count the completed absentee ballots.
"We were very grateful for that extra week, and we hope they keep that change," Harrell said of early verification of absentee votes.
"I don't see any harm in it." Price agreed, saying the change would have been a welcome benefit even in a normal election year. "Getting more time was a major stress reliever," she said.
The Legislature would need to make any changes to the "unavoidably unable" standard for absentee voting, Harrell and Price said.
Niehaus said the Secretary of State's Office isn't planning to recommend any changes in voting law to the next legislative session that starts in January.
Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, serves as a member of the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees most changes in state election law. He said Tuesday he expects a lot of debate on changes to election law in the next session -- mainly because there always is.
If there is an attempt to allow greater use of absentee ballots, Dotson doesn't expect it to succeed. He tried to get support for a "no excuse" absentee voting bill earlier this year.
"I was shocked by the degree of opposition," he said.
One change Harrell hopes her county's election board continues was in the verification process for absentee ballots. Signatures on absentee ballot applications have to be compared to the signatures on documents in returned ballots. All signatures were checked from one long alphabetized list in previous years.
This year, Benton County adopted a practice used by Pulaski County and taped a printed signature from ballot applications to the envelope of returned ballots.
"When we opened the ballots, both pieces of paper were right there," Harrell said.
The judiciary also appears poised to change state election law. A court order by a federal judge in Fayetteville on Election Day said a state law limiting the number of voters one person can help is probably doomed.
A 2009 state law prohibits any one person who is not a county election official or poll worker from assisting more than six people.
Arkansas United, a Springdale-based immigrant rights group, filed a lawsuit challenging the limit, claiming it hurts voters who don't read English well. Arkansas United has participation from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a national civil rights group.
"Section 208 of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 provides that 'any voter who requires assistance to vote by reason of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write may be given assistance by a person of the voter's choice, other than the voter's employer or agent of that employer or officer or agent of the voter's union,'" states the lawsuit, filed Nov. 2.
U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks denied Arkansas United's request to immediately suspend the state law's restriction, but his court order said in part: "While defendants argue that Arkansas' restrictions are reasonable, these restrictions appear to conflict the plain language of [section] 208." The restriction prevents voters from choosing the helper of their choice if the person they want has already helped six others.
"Thus, the court finds the plaintiffs have demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their VRA [Voters Rights Act] claim." No trial date is set for the lawsuit yet.
Civil rights groups have had their eye on overturning the limit for years, said Griselda Vega Samuel of Chicago, the Midwest regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
"This election was a perfect storm of factors for challenging it, with the limited resources of Arkansas United stretched, with the pandemic and a record turnout," Samuel said. Also, recent court victories in other states in challenges to similar laws bolsters Arkansas United's claim, she said.
The state attorney general's office is defending the state. The office doesn't comment on pending litigation, a spokesman confirmed Wednesday. However, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge entered a motion to dismiss Tuesday. It claims Arkansas United's interpretation of Section 208 is sweeping and the plaintiffs failed to show any pattern or history of discrimination related to the six-person limit.
Doug Thompson can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @NWADoug.