By: Alexis Pinkston
The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.
As everyone knows, we are in unprecedented times with the seemingly never-ending pandemic and the added stress of an election year to top it off. While the government has attempted to alleviate some of the stress surrounding voting during a pandemic, there are still many gaps in access to voting even in a normal year that are further exacerbated by the pandemic.
Arkansas has one of the earliest voter registration deadlines in the country, requiring a postmark date of 30 days prior to Election Day for mail-in registration. Additionally, Arkansas is one of only nine states that do not have an online option for voter registration. During a normal year, these issues prevent people from voting here, specifically those who have recently moved or have simply not paid attention to election deadlines. Many other states have later registration deadlines, which means a person moving to Arkansas from another state may miss the deadline, relying on the fact that his or her state had a later deadline.
My proposal to solve these issues is twofold: 1) the addition of online registration and 2) extending the deadline for registration. Even if a person finds out about the deadline last minute, one can quickly register online if one has access to the technology to do so. Extending the registration deadline for online registration would also make sense because the election commission would not have to account for mail delivery times, allowing online registration forms to arrive at the office at the same time that a mail-in form would have.
For voters who requested an absentee ballot this election season, they would first have needed to submit an application using one of these three options:
- Dropping the application off at the County Clerk’s office.
- Paying postage to send in the application.
- Emailing the application to the County Clerk.
For submitting the absentee ballot, voters had two options:
- Dropping the ballot off at the County Clerk’s office.
- Paying postage to send the ballot in the mail.
There are challenges associated with each option. Dropping the absentee ballot application off at the County Clerk’s office requires some interaction with other people, increasing the risk of contracting COVID-19. However, the other two options require the voter to have the means and financial capacity to complete them. If the voter is lucky enough to live in one of the few counties accepting applications by email, the voter has to own a scanner and computer in order to send the application in. If the voter does not, then the voter must pay the cost of postage to send the application through the regular mail. Even after submitting the application, the voter has to either pay postage again to submit the ballot via mail or risk contracting COVID-19 by dropping off the ballot at the County Clerk’s office. Requiring voters to pay for postage to submit a ballot seems like a poll tax, in violation of the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
While there is an in-person option for voting, that is not a viable option for immunocompromised people trying to avoid COVID-19 and large crowds. Many major counties in Arkansas have curbside drop-off locations for absentee ballots, but, unlike other states, we do not have any ballot drop boxes. Arkansas is part of the minority of states that do not have 24-hour ballot drop boxes available to voters. There is a valid argument against 24/7 ballot boxes, since there is at least one example of a drop-off box being set on fire this election season. However, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission has set out recommendations for ballot drop boxes that should decrease the risk of damage to ballots, such as placing the drop box in a high traffic, well-lit area, with regular law enforcement observation.
Due to the recent increase in absentee voting, the deadline for absentee ballots to be returned and the deadline for counting those ballots are now more important than ever before. There was a recent lawsuit concerning an extension on the deadline to count absentee ballots on Election Day. Ultimately, the State Board of Election Commissioners stated that every timely, valid absentee ballot will be counted. This was a win for voter protection, but the issue still remains of the deadline for the County Clerk to receive ballots. About one-third of states allow absentee ballots to be received after Election Day if the ballots are postmarked by Election Day. With increasing fears about the efficiency of the U.S. Postal Service delivering ballots on time, an extended deadline for receiving absentee ballots makes sense to ensure that every person’s ballot is counted.
It’s been almost 200 years since the first election in Arkansas, and, while many things have changed, unfortunately our election process seems hopelessly stuck in the past.