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Measures on absentee ballots, voting issues OK'd by Senate

by Rachel Herzog | April 14, 2021 at 4:02 a.m.

Three bills that would tighten restrictions on absentee ballots and change state law for reviewing complaints about election violations advanced in the Arkansas Legislature on Tuesday.

House Bill 1715 by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, passed in the Senate. The bill would prohibit designated election officials from distributing unsolicited absentee ballot applications to voters and would make possessing more than four absentee ballots a rebuttable presumption of intent to defraud.

The bill also would require that a uniform statement created and approved by the state Board of Election Commissioners be provided to voters and that the county clerk periodically provide to the county board of election commissioners a daily count of the absentee ballot applications received.

Additionally, HB1715 states that the signature on a voter's absentee ballot application must match the signature on the person's voter registration application.

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said he liked parts of the bill, including the uniform voter statement and daily reports, but he said that matching signatures that can be decades apart could be a high bar for many voters, particularly those who are elderly or have disabilities.

"There will be people who don't get their ballot because their signature doesn't match," Tucker said.

Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, said voters have the option to update their signatures on their registration applications.

"Our signatures, I believe, are as important as our Social Security numbers, because with a signature we can do a lot of things," Hammer said.

The measure passed 27-8, with nay votes from all seven Democrats in the Senate and from Sen. Jim Hendren, an independent from Sulphur Springs.

In a statement Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas said HB1715 strips power from nonpartisan election officials and gives it to partisan politicians.

Senate Bill 643, by Hammer, would require that absentee ballots be turned in by the end of the day on the Friday before an election. Current state law allows for them to be turned in in-person by the end of the day on the Monday before an election. (The deadline for mailed-in ballots is Election Day.)

Hammer said the change would allow more time for election officials to process the ballots and deal with any irregularities.

The legislation passed 25-8 in the Senate, with opposition from Democrats and Hendren.

Senate Bill 644, also by Hammer, would set up procedures for the Legislature to review issues with elections. The bill also would prohibit anyone convicted of a misdemeanor related to violating election law from being an election official in future elections.

Hammer said the legislation creates "a clearly defined method" of how complaints are dealt with.

The bill passed 27-8, along party lines.

Later Tuesday, the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs advanced:

• House Bill 1517 by Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith, which would set up a system to allow people in the state to register online to vote.

• Senate Bill 582 by Hammer, which specifies the officials before which county election commissioners would take the oath of office.

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