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Arkansas session rolls out array of vote laws

Changes hailed by some as protective, reviled by others as added restrictions by Rachel Herzog | May 9, 2021 at 11:14 a.m.
Kristi Stahr (left) answers a question as Sen. Kim Hammer (right), R-Benton, listens while presenting a series of bills amending election laws during the Senate State Agencies Committee on Tuesday, March 30, 2021, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Arkansas enacted more than 20 laws on elections and voting during the 2021 legislative session, including measures on absentee voting, election complaints and other changes.

While some bills weren't controversial or had bipartisan support, many Republican-backed bills have been decried by civil-rights groups as efforts to limit people's access to the ballot. Proponents of those laws say they're about ensuring election integrity.

"We clearly see this as voter suppression, chipping away at access to the ballot, and the modern-day poll tax," Kymara Seals, policy director at the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, said in an interview Friday.

At least a dozen bills were the product of an ad hoc committee that included Pulaski County Election Chairwoman Kristi Stahr and Republican lawmakers, most of whom were from Pulaski County, Stahr said in an interview Wednesday.

"I think it's going to bring a greater confidence of the voters," Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, said.

More than 350 voting bills have been introduced this year in dozens of states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy think tank.

[Guide not showing up above? Click here to see it: arkansasonline.com/59arkvote/]

ABSENTEE VOTING

Several provisions in the new laws could make it more difficult for some of Arkansas' absentee voters.

Senate Bill 643, now Act 973, requires that absentee ballots be submitted in person to the county clerk's office no later than the Friday before the day of the election. Under current law, those ballots must be turned in the Monday before an election. The new law doesn't change the deadline for mailed-in ballots, which is Election Day.

In two of the largest counties, Pulaski and Washington, more than 1,000 voters in each county turned in their ballots after what will be the new deadline, according to numbers provided by the clerks' offices.

Hammer, the bill's sponsor, said in a committee meeting last month that the bill's intent is to give more time for county clerk's offices to process the ballots and avoid errors.

Absentee voters who live overseas and military service members still have until 10 days after the election for their ballots to arrive by mail.

Holly Dickson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, said in an email Wednesday that absentee voters are disenfranchised in every election for ballots not being returned by the current deadline, and the new law makes it harder for those voters to get their ballots in on time.

Lindsey French, legal counsel for the Association of Arkansas Counties, told a Senate committee last month that the Arkansas Association of County Clerks did not have an official position on the bill, but the majority of the group's members didn't have a problem with it.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, allowed the measure to become law without his signature. Hutchinson said in a written statement Friday that he did not sign the bill because it changes how the state has historically receives absentee ballots.

"This unnecessarily limits the opportunities for voters to cast their ballot prior to the election," Hutchinson said.

House Bill 1715, now Act 736, bans the distribution of unsolicited absentee ballots and ballot applications by county clerks and other designated election officials and makes the possession of more than four absentee ballots, rather than 10 as in current law, a rebuttable presumption of intent to defraud.

Several county clerks' offices told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that they did not send out unsolicited absentee ballots, though some organizations in the state sent out applications.

Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, the bill's sponsor, said in an interview last month that HB1715 wouldn't ban those groups from sending applications to voters, but would prevent, for instance, a county clerk from sending applications only to areas where more voters of a certain political party live than others. He said he didn't know whether that was happening in the state.

"It would be an unequal and unfair manipulation of the process," he said.

Another part of HB1715 standardizes the requirement that a voter's signature on an absentee ballot be verified by checking the person's voter registration application. That standard exists in Arkansas law already but was inconsistent throughout state code, Stahr said, leading to the standard being applied unequally across the state.

Democratic lawmakers, who voted against the bill in both chambers, said they were concerned that the standard would disenfranchise people, particularly the elderly and people with disabilities, since the two signatures could be decades apart. Dickson said signature-matching provisions have the propensity to disenfranchise anyone but particularly suppress the vote of marginalized groups.

"People's handwriting changes over time, and elections officials comparing those signatures are not trained as handwriting specialists, among other issues," she said.

Stahr, who was formerly head of voter registration in Pulaski County, said voters can update the signature they have on file with the state anytime.

In Pulaski County, 591 absentee ballot applications had their signatures compared to a signature in a poll book or on an early-vote request sheet from the past two years. Under the new law, those applicants would have been sent a letter and a voter registration form to sign and return, Jason Kennedy, assistant chief deputy in the Pulaski County clerk's office, said in an email last week.

In the United States, absentee voting was more popular than ever in 2020, according to a study the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Election Data and Science Lab published in January that included data going back to the 1990s. Nearly half of American voters cast ballots by mail in the 2020 election, compared with about 20% in 2016, according to a survey from the center.

The coronavirus pandemic significantly affected the ways in which people voted in 2020. Arkansas eased restrictions on why a person could vote absentee.

Last year, politics and polling website FiveThirtyEight ranked Arkansas in the second-to-lowest tier of the 50 states for ease of absentee voting, because the state doesn't automatically mail any ballot application materials to voters, and then voters must wait to be approved and receive ballots.

Last week, the governor of Florida signed into law a bill that tightens restrictions on absentee ballots, among other things, and lawmakers in Texas gave approval to a law that would include new limits on mail-in voting and increased penalties for voting irregularities. Both were Republican-sponsored measures.

ELECTION COMPLAINTS

Other pieces of legislation passed this session create new avenues for governmental entities to respond to and refer election-related complaints.

House Bill 1803, now Act 756, gives the state Board of Election Commissioners the authority to institute corrective actions in response to complaints and expands the types of violations about which county election commissions can make complaints.

Senate Bill 644, now Act 974, creates a process by which the Legislature can review election issues through its Joint Performance Review Committee.

Hammer said the Legislature's hands are often tied, because they hear complaints about elections from constituents but don't have a way to respond.

Hutchinson said he allowed the bill to become law without his signature because it amounts to a "takeover in the review of all elections" by the committee.

"This bill goes too far. The Legislature should not be investigating municipal and county elections. The General Assembly has jurisdiction to review the election of its own members but reviewing all elections is an intrusion on local governance," the governor wrote.

Senate Bill 498, now Act 952, requires that complaints made to county election boards about alleged election law violations be sent to the state Board of Election Commissioners, rather than to county clerks or local prosecutors.

The appropriation for the state Board of Election Commissioners for fiscal 2022, which totals almost $1.1 million, includes funding for three new employees.

Board Director Daniel Shults said the agency asked for the new employees as a result of several laws that increase the duties of the state board, including a provision that requires additional training for election officials.

Shults said the state board didn't take a position on any of the bills from the 2021 session except for the legislation the agency proposed that is now Act 610, which allows special elections to be scheduled once a quarter.

"Ultimately, I think I can say that more oversight of the election process is also a good thing," Shults said.

He said the state board has not yet concluded any investigations into complaints from the 2020 election. Several investigations are ongoing, he said.

Opponents of the bills say they're unnecessary and fall in line with a false national narrative pushed by supporters of former President Donald Trump that he was robbed of a second term.

"We were assured that there was no voter fraud due to countless recounting of votes in the state of Georgia and other areas," Dianne Curry, president of the Little Rock NAACP, said in a written statement Friday, likening the bills to Jim Crow laws that limit access to the ballot for Black voters.

Three instances of voter fraud have been documented in Arkansas since 2002, according to a database from the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Supporters of the bills have suggested that local prosecutors don't act unless the activity influenced the result of an election.

"I think there's a history in Arkansas of prosecutors not taking seriously complaints about elections, about fraud," Hammer said, adding that the measures are "proactive to make sure that our election system is the most secure and of the highest integrity."

100-FOOT ZONE

A restriction on voting sites enacted in Arkansas has drawn comparisons to a part of Georgia's new voting law, a 98-page measure that sparked anger and boycotts in that state.

Senate Bill 486, now Act 728, would bar people from entering or remaining in an area within 100 feet of the entrance to a voting site while voting is taking place except for a person entering or leaving the building for "lawful purposes."

The bill's proponents and detractors disagree on whether it would allow someone to give a bottle of water to a voter waiting in line. The Georgia law specifically bans giving any food or drink to a voter within 150 feet of a polling place.

Stahr said Arkansas' law wouldn't prohibit that and the intent is to target loitering. Loriee Evans, an organizer for voter-education group Indivisible Little Rock and Central Arkansas, said in a committee meeting last month that she didn't think that activity was clearly protected and would bar "good Samaritans" from thanking people for voting.

Republican lawmakers who supported the bill said they saw nonpartisan groups campaign at polling sites under the guise of voter education.

Seals of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel said the legislation was "mean-spirited."

Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said SB486 would only make it harder to vote if people were standing in line.

"So if we see more record-high turnout elections, and there are signs that we will, then it could make a difference. That one, to me, seems more symbolic than some of the other ones because it's not a frequent occurrence in Arkansas politics," Parry said.

OVERALL IMPACT

Parry said the laws passed in Arkansas are newer types of voting-related provisions, and it usually takes a few years for researchers to cross-check across states and figure out what effect certain laws have on voter turnout.

Efforts over the past three decades to roll back changes from 100 years ago that made it harder for people to vote overall have had a modest impact, increasing turnout by a few points, she said.

Parry said laws like House Bill 1112, now Act 249, which strikes from state law a provision that allowed people to vote without ID if they signed a sworn statement and would affect a few thousand voters in Pulaski County, likely wouldn't make a difference in election outcomes.

But poll workers and others who care about the experiences of individual voters are concerned about the chance of something causing a first-time or less-experienced voter to be turned away or have a negative experience and becoming less likely to exercise that right in the future, Parry said.

The ACLU of Arkansas was not able to provide a complete analysis of the bills or any of them individually as of last week, though Dickson has said election bills in the state will make it harder for people of all political stripes to vote.

Lawmakers behind the bills said they were responding to specific local issues or being proactive, and said protests from advocacy groups that the laws would prevent people from voting weren't true.

"I don't think there's any evidence to show that that is what's going to happen," Lowery said.

When speaking in opposition to HB1715 and HB1803 in the House last month, Rep. Fred Love, D-Little Rock, said the bills use the "Jim Crow handbook" to prevent people from voting.

"The last time sweeping changes like this were made was sometime around the 1890s," Love said. "I will tell you this, history will judge this time in the Legislature, and it will show that these laws, all they do is disenfranchise people."

Unless otherwise stated in the bill through an emergency clause or an effective date, legislation passed during the 2021 session will go into effect in late July. A search by bill number at arkleg.state.ar.us will enable people to read the legislation.

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