The Joint Budget Committee this morning killed Sen. Joyce Elliott’s proposal to allow no-excuse absentee voting in November.
Elliott said she’d circulated her idea to the governor and others and got no negative feedback. She said it was a common-sense thing to do given the possibility of a continuation of coronavirus in November.
Any qualified elector could request a ballot. It would allow voters to vote safely without encountering virus dangers, she said. She noted the recent experience in Wisconsin when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to delay the election and voters gathered in close proximity to cast ballots. “There’s no reason for that to happen here.” She also said this change would be temporary. It would go away Dec. 31.
Elliott said she’d tried to win bipartisan support. But that wasn’t possible. Instead, Rep. Jim Dotson of Bentonville filed a competing amendment that would allow no-excuse absentees only if the governor still had an emergency declaration in effect. His amendment also said that those who request an absentee ballot would give up a right to vote at the poll. Sometimes people lose their absentee ballots and go to the polls. Dotson’s amendment would make that impossible. After Elliott’s proposal was defeated amid fervent Republican opposition, he withdrew consideration of his proposal.
Elliott said her bill would give county officials time to plan. “You just don’t up and decide to do this.” If there’s no problem by Nov. 3, “that’s a good thing.” People will just simply go to polls and most won’t get absentee ballots “because it takes effort to get an absentee ballot.”
Republican Sen. Jon Dismang said the measure as written would apply to special location elections between now and the end of the year. He said someone could easily organize to pass a local tax increase through the absentee process.
Republican Rep. Doug House wondered why the governor couldn’t simply extend the proclamation he issued for recent primary runoffs. Elliott said county officials needed to know exactly what they are facing. “This is something the legislature can and should do.” He argued the law’s allowance of an absentee ballot on account of “illness” doesn’t specify WHOSE illness. It could be a family member or someone else, he noted. She said that’s a question open to interpretation and it would be better for the legislature to clarify it.
Another Republican said he’d heard of cases where people had mailed an absentee ballot and then tried to vote at the polls. “Tried” is the key, Elliott responded. The records kept on ballots catch this.
Republican Sen. Jason Rapert also challenged the relevance to the fiscal session. “It’s an emergency,” she said. He said she should have filed a resolution that requires a two-thirds vote and the governor’s approval. He questioned a lack of protection for the integrity of the ballot. But there is an ID requirement for absentee ballots just as there is for in-person voting. “It doesn’t change any of that,” she said. “The same safeguards are in place.”
Sen. Will Bond, a Democrat, rose in support of Elliott’s measure. He noted that no legislator is being required to prove a reason to vote by proxy in this legislative session. “We’re basically allowing it by choice, right?” He said the choice is offering voters the same opportunity legislators are offered or treat them differently.
Sen. Keith Ingram, a Democrat, defended Elliott’s idea. In response to unspecified claims of fraud, he noted that people had been prosecuted for trying to vote fraudulent absentee ballots and he responded to other Republican complaints that many legislators had offered amendments that weren’t budget issues. He said reputable scientists predicted a second wave from the virus and noted the “disaster” in recent voting in Wisconsin. And as to Dismang’s complaint, he wondered why people shouldn’t have the opportunity to vote in any election.
If there is a second wave, the consideration isn’t only voters, Ingram said, but also the poll workers, many of them elderly.
Another Republican, Rep. Justin Boyd, asked what was wrong with letting the governor extend his executive order. Elliott said “we don’t know what COVID-19” is going to do. If there’s a resurgence in September, it’s too late for county officials to prepare. “It’s a part of our democracy we shouldn’t take chances with.” Putting the responsibility on the governor to decide on the spur of the moment isn’t a good idea. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Republican Rep. Sarah Capp raised questions about the additional cost of absentee ballots. Elliott said she didn’t have statewide figures, but Pulaski County said it was cost $125,000 to send a ballot to every single elector. “But they certainly don’t expect every single voter is going to ask for an absentee ballot.” But if the cost rose, she said the legislature could be asked, and should, provide additional financial help.
Republican Sen. Gary Stubblefield said it was just speculation that the virus might not subside in a couple of months. Republican Rep. Robin Lundstrum asked, “why would we need to do this.” She argued that the pandemic could be used as an excuse for an absentee ballot. Otherwise, she said, “they can just mask up and put on gloves and vote.” Lundstrum questioned whether it was an appropriate topic for the budget session. She contended mail-in ballots are “fraught” with fraud. Elliott said the military has been voting by mail for years without fraud. “We just don’t have that evidence,” Elliott said.
Elliott also addressed a rumor that the amendment was linked to her congressional candidacy. She said emotionally, “I would have brought this no matter what.”
Her proposal drew only 15 ayes. I’m trying to run down the roll call. But the committee consists of 12 Democrats and 35 Republicans.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson authorized, by emergency executive order, no-excuse absentees during a handful of recent runoff primary elections Two-thirds of the state allow this, but in Arkansas, you must have a reason — being unavoidably absent or on account of illness.
Donald Trump has objected to mail voting — which is what absentee voting is — though he voted by mail in the Florida primary. Republicans contend, with little evidence, that mail voting is massively abused. All-mail voting is used in a couple of states. What most Republicans really fear is that more people will vote, particularly poorer people with less access to the polls. They are believed to lean Democratic.
Several legislators offered amendments today that went beyond straight budget considerations. Among them was a measure by Sen. Bob Ballinger aimed toward a bailout for six counties with liability for a failed landfill in his area and a proposal by Rep. Joe Jett to exempt government assistance payments to farmers (and stimulus checks to other businesses and individuals, I should have added) from state income tax. Sen. Mark Johnson filed one to limit state spending on Chinese companies and Sen. Trent Garner has a China-retaliation amendment, too.
UPDATE: The governor was asked about no-excuse absentees at his afternoon briefing.
He said “we don’t know” if there will be an emergency in November. If ithe crisis continues, he’d be open to waiving the rules to allow no-excuse voting, which is certainly important in case of a virus threat