Special Report: Voting amid a health crisis

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"We're going to have an election and we're going to do everything we can to have it in a safe fashion," Governor Asa Hutchinson said.

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WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — How you’ll be able to vote in the 2020 November general election has been a topic of contention around the nation and in the Natural State.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many are worried about their safety. Standing in line and touching poll machines is a major concern in a time when physical distancing is strongly encouraged to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“All the voters that look at November should be assured that we’re going to make sure that whatever the condition of the virus is at that time, that we’re going to have an election and we’re going to do everything we can to have it in a safe fashion,” Governor Asa Hutchinson said.

As things stand now, with less than six months to go before the election, if you’re an Arkansas resident, you’ll have to go to your precinct in person to cast your ballot, pandemic, or not, unless you qualify for an absentee ballot.

Depending on how long the current health crisis lasts, that could change.

“If there is an issue that needs to be addressed in November in which we’re still in a public health emergency, I will at that time use the powers for no-excuse absentee voting,” Gov. Hutchinson said.

The governor has said he’s not willing to commit to any election changes, until we get closer to election day.

President Donald Trump has expressed strong opposition to voting by way of mail. He took to twitter where he claimed mail-in ballots lead to fraud.

Right now, Arkansas does not allow mail-in voting or no-excuse absentee voting, which are two completely different ways of voting. See the graphic below for explanation.

John Brown University Political Science Professor Dr. Daniel Bennett said the president’s claims of fraud don’t hold up.

“Mail-in voting and no-excuse absentee ballots, they’re no more at risk for fraudulent activities then someone going into the voting booth and voting again,” Dr. Bennett continued, “if you look at the pros of no-excuse absentee ballots in terms of making it safer for people to go to the polls, trying to prevent future outbreaks if this pandemic does linger on into the election season, I think there’s got to be ways to secure this.”

Dr. Bennett said voter fraud is incredibly rare, and with the current health crisis, this way of voting could be worth the risk.

The Washington County Election Commission is already preparing for all types of scenarios per Executive Director Jennifer Price. She said her team holds regular meetings with election commissions from nearby counties.

According to Price, typically absentee ballots make up 2% of ballots cast. She said she anticipates they could make up to 30% of ballots if the governor does approve no-excuse absentee ballots.

If we do see an influx in this way of voting, Price said it could cost the county anywhere between $5,000 to $15,000 extra, postage not included.

She said it’ll also require a shift in staffing. “There’s actually quite a long process to verify that the ballots that are coming are from the person that requested them.”

Poll workers have to verify every single absentee ballot that is submitted. Price said the voter sends in a copy of their ID with the ballot, and staff have to verify their signature, birthday and address.

Price said, “we definitely are looking at making sure we have enough ballot stock available.”

At this point, though, it really is a waiting game to see if the governor will allow no-excuse absentee voting, or if you’ll have to show up in person to have your voice heard.

In recent news briefings, Hutchinson hinted he’s in no rush to make a final decision. “I’ve got probably until August because August is the time that the county clerks have to start printing ballots and getting ready for the fall election.”

Hutchinson said he’ll likely make a decision sometime in July.

Price said that’ll give her team enough time to prepare. “In August is when we actually start our prep work for the general election in preparing the ballots in getting all of that information together.”

If you are worried about your safety while voting, Price suggested you take advantage of early voting which is when turnout is significantly lower.

She also said her team will be taking extra precautions to ensure the safety of poll workers and constituents who do vote in person because even if the governor chooses to allow no-excuse absentee voting, in-person voting will be available on election day.

Remember, to vote in the general election on Tuesday, November 3, you must be registered 30 days prior.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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