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Meeting focuses on election laws

Officials for state, NW say voters will see few big changes by Tom Sissom | July 22, 2021 at 3:09 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE -- State and local election officials agreed Wednesday that voters should see minimal changes caused by election legislation approved in the 2021 session of the state Legislature.

"I don't think there were very many major changes," Russ Anzalone, chairman of the Benton County Election Commission, said after the meeting. "There were a few that we'll have to publicize and educate voters on, but we always have to do that."

Members of election commissions from 10 counties in Northwest Arkansas gathered with county clerks, members of the clerks' staffs and representatives of the state Board of Election Commissioners on Wednesday morning in Fayetteville to renew a routine of regional election meetings that was interrupted in 2020 by the covid-19 pandemic.

Jennifer Price, election coordinator for Washington County, said the two biggest changes that voters will see deal with state laws concerning the deadline for returning absentee ballots and with voter ID requirements.

Act 249 of 2021 removes the "optional identity affirmation" provision that had been a part of state law since the voter ID law was adopted in 2016, Price said. The optional identity affirmation allowed a voter to have a ballot counted without providing the required photo ID.

Act 249 will require voters to have photo ID in order to cast a ballot in person. Absentee voters will be required to provide a copy of their photo ID when they return their absentee ballots. If the required ID isn't provided, then absentee voters will have until noon on the Monday after an election to present the required ID to the clerk of the county election commission.

Price said the number of voters who fail to present photo ID has been decreasing every year since the requirement was adopted.

The second change that Price noted concerns the deadline for returning absentee ballots in person by a voter or a designated bearer for that voter. The new law changes the deadline, moving it to the end of business hours on the Friday before the election.

State law had allowed absentee ballots to be returned in person up until the end of business hours at the county clerk's office on the day before an election. Ballots being returned by authorized agents of voters who are hospitalized or in long-term care facilities and medically unable to vote at a regular polling location can still be returned by hand until 7:30 p.m. on the day of the election.

Price said designated bearers are typically family members of older voters who requested absentee ballots, forgot to mail them in and didn't want to try to deliver the ballots themselves. Authorized agents are typically used when voters are hospitalized just before an election. Price said the use of authorized agents has been rare.

Price said the changes in election laws won't apply to the Aug. 10 special election in Fayetteville. The changes will go into effect July 28, she said. Price said the Fayetteville election was called for in June, and some voters have already requested and been sent absentee ballots.

"The election was called for in June, before the changes take effect," Price said. "If the new law were used, voters who requested an absentee ballot in June or July would receive a different set of instructions than someone who requested a ballot in August."

The group heard from state officials on other new laws and on the training the state will provide local election officials and poll workers next year.

Daniel Shults, director of the state Board of Election Commissioners, said the regional gatherings began with Northwest Arkansas, and the board has since worked to organized similar meetings in other parts of the state. He said regional meetings have been held in Batesville, Jonesboro, Hope, Monticello and Little Rock. He said the meetings are useful after legislative sessions, to review changes in the laws, and in the year before legislative sessions, to give local election officials an opportunity to consider changes they might support or oppose.

"It's an opportunity for election commissioners and officials in many counties to get together to share information," Shults said.

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