Arkansas voters may now request an absentee ballot form for the upcoming November election if they are concerned about possible exposure to COVID-19. The announcement came Thursday afternoon from Governor Asa Hutchinson and Secretary of State John Thurston, and it was exactly what Pulaski County Clerk Terri Hollingsworth wanted to hear.
"That has been one of the biggest stressors because if everybody waits until October 27 to request an absentee ballot, then I can't fulfill that order," said Hollingsworth who serves the state's largest population of registered voters.
Despite the good news that voters can begin the process now, there is still one big concern about absentee ballots for Hollingsworth heading into November.
"If half of my voters wanted to vote absentee, we don't have the budget for that," said Hollingsworth.
Pulaski County budgeted for the cost of only 9,000 absentee ballots, and now the county is expecting a lot more. Looking at their budgets, Hollingsworth and other county clerks are anxious to know how much the state will kick in to cover the unexpected cost. Secretary of State Thurston acknowledged the postage price tag during the press conference on Thursday.
"Sending the application. Them mailing it back. You mailing the ballot. Them returning it; so you're looking at a huge price tag, in my opinion" said Thurston.
Hollingsworth says the state is better able to bear the extra cost than the counties, especially with the $4.2 million it received from the federal government to help with COVID-19 related election as part of the CARES Act. In an open letter on Thursday Hollingsworth asked the state to use the federal funding but also asked the governor and legislature to consider appropriating emergency funding as well.
Funding is not the only challenge with absentee ballots. Hollingsworth says voters need to be made aware of the option to request a ballot, fill it out properly, and be assured the vote will be counted.
During the press conference Secretary Thurston stated that "an absentee vote is essentially a provisional vote," but Hollingsworth said that's not true and assured voters their absentee ballots would be counted the same as in-person votes
"If everything is right, every box is checked, and it's signed perfectly, then that will be counted as a normal ballot," assured Hollingsworth.
Only absentee ballots filled out incorrectly will it be treated as provisional ballots. Hollingsworth is asking the state to extend ballot canvassing through the entire early voting period in order to avoid any delay in announcing election results.
She said she is confident that if she and her fellow clerks receive adequate funding and time, they will be able to prepare and hold the election in the middle of a health crisis and set the standard for future elections.