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Bill to cut early-voting day clears House committee

by Rachel Herzog | April 27, 2021 at 4:29 a.m.
Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, right, is shown in this file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

Legislation to eliminate early voting on the Monday before an election advanced from a House committee Monday afternoon after failing in the committee earlier that day and previously struggling to advance through the state Senate.

In a roll call, the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs' vote was 11-4. Senate Bill 485, by Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, now heads to the entire House for consideration.

SB485 fell one vote short of advancing from the committee when it was voted on Monday morning. The bill failed in a Senate committee three times before it was signed out and passed by the state Senate on a 19-13 vote.

Hammer and supporters of the measure said eliminating early voting the day before the election would provide more time for poll workers to count votes and avoid errors, while voting-rights advocates say lawmakers should be creating more opportunities for Arkansans to vote, not taking them away.

Arkansas is one of 24 states that has early voting, and it has 13 early-voting days. SB485 would reduce the number of early-voting days to 12. About 57,000 votes were cast in Arkansas on the day before Election Day in 2020.

Hammer said Monday morning that while voting is a right, early voting is a privilege, adding that in the past, both parties have attempted to remove the final Monday from the state's early-voting days.

"You want to do everything you can to make sure the vote is counted," Hammer said. "I think this is just a good practical approach."

Five people, including representatives from the League of Women Voters of Arkansas, Indivisible Little Rock and Central Arkansas and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, spoke against the bill Monday morning.

"We are advocates to expand access to the ballot, not restrict access," said Kymara Seals, policy director at the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.

Seals added that having voting on the final Monday hadn't been a problem for the county officials to whom she'd spoken, and there were likely more counties where having all 13 days of early voting was working than counties where it wasn't.

Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, said the bill specifically aims to help rural counties. Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, said that in his observation, the Monday before the election is a big day for early voting.

Committee members who voted yes on the bill Monday afternoon were Ladyman; Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier; Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia; Rep. Bruce Cozart; R-Hot Springs; Rep. John Payton, R-Wilburn; Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne; Rep. Rick Beck, R-Center Ridge; Rep. Nelda Speaks, R-Mountain Home; Rep. Marcus Richmond, R-Harvey; Rep. Austin McCollum, R-Bentonville; and Rep. Justin Gonzales, R-Okolona. Gray had voted no at Monday morning's meeting. Gonzales and McCollum had been absent in the morning.

Voting no were Dotson; Rep. Gary Deffenbaugh, R-Van Buren; Rep. Josh Miller, R-Heber Springs; and Rep. David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville. Deffenbaugh and Miller had voted yes Monday morning.

Reps. Fred Love, D-Little Rock; Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage; Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood; and Spencer Hawks, R-Conway, were absent Monday afternoon.

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