“The right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished.’’
– President Ronald Reagan –
Protecting the right to vote, even in the midst of controversy, has deep roots in Arkansas politics. Since achieving statehood in 1836, Arkansans have headed to the polls to make their voice heard on election day. Of course, in those early elections a person could only vote if they were white, male, a U.S. citizen, and a citizen of the state for six months or more. In the 184 years since, our state has taken a winding, rough and tumble path to our modern day election laws. With the next presidential election only a few months away, and preparations already beginning across the state, we are now facing a global pandemic that has voters questioning how their constitutional right to vote and their health will be protected in November.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to creating a safe, secure, and fair election for 1.7 million registered Arkansas voters during an unpredictable virus outbreak. So, of course, within a matter of days, social media took this complex policy issue and boiled it down to a few memes comparing voting to standing in line at a big box store. Oversimplified messages like this often provoke an emotional response by touching on hot button issues like election fraud and voter suppression, while glossing over other important, less inflammatory facts. More than ever, it is vital that Arkansans understand their constitutional right to the ballot box and know what to expect heading into a heated election cycle.
According to the Arkansas Secretary of State, in order to register to vote you must be a U.S. citizen, an Arkansas resident, be age 18 or turn 18 on or before the next election, not be a convicted felon whose sentence has not been discharged or pardoned, and not be presently adjudged as mentally incompetent as to your ability to vote by a court of competent jurisdiction. Additionally, Arkansas voters must verify their registration by providing proper identification when voting.
If a registered voter will be unable to physically present at their polling site to cast a ballot, Arkansas also gives the option to vote by mail via an absentee ballot. The use of absentee ballots is limited to those with illness or physical disability, residents in long-term care facilities, or anyone unavoidably absent from their polling site on Election Day. In the midst of uncertainty caused by the coronavirus, this requirement to choose one of three reasons for absentee voting has been called into question by legislators, election officials, and voting rights advocates across the state. After all, what does “unavoidably absent” even really mean when dealing with a virus that can be spread for weeks before symptoms are evident? At this time Arkansas doesn’t have a legal structure in place to determine what is a valid unavoidable absence. To my knowledge, no one has ever even had their request for an absentee ballot investigated for validity but that hasn’t stopped state lawmakers from loudly disagreeing over the issue.
Election advocates expressed confidence that this issue could be cleared up by temporarily implementing “no-excuse absentee voting,” which removes the requirement to provide a reason for requesting an absentee ballot.
On March 20, 2020 Governor Hutchinson issued an executive order to ease restrictions on polling site consolidation, extend the deadline to receive an absentee ballot by mail, and implement no-excuse absentee voting for primary runoff elections that were held on March 31. However, two competing measures, which would have implemented similar precautions for no-excuse absentee voting in November, exposed fundamental disagreements between state legislators during the recent fiscal session. On May 7, Hutchinson amended his order to continue the provisions for special elections being held through June 9, 2020, but stopped short of extending the order to November. He has since issued increasingly contradictory statements on the issue.
Unfortunately in the absence of a clear path forward, voters will be asked to choose between their health and their right to vote. I wonder if President Reagan would consider the luster of the crown jewel of American liberty diminished by that choice.