Governor Hutchinson’s daily briefing on COVID-19 included a daily record for new cases and an announcement that he and both political parties favored the ability to cast an absentee ballot by mail if a voter fears COVID-19. But no official action to specifically legalize such voting was announced.
Hutchinson echoed Secretary of State John Thurston’s interpretation of existing state law. But Thurston doesn’t enforce that provision, the county election commissions do. Nonetheless, the governor said he was in full agreement and supported that being the practice this year.
Michael John Gray, the Democratic Party chair, and Doyle Webb, the Republican chair, appeared at the news conference to say they agreed with the governor and Secretary of State Thurston on the law. Thurston also appeared.
The governor did NOT say he’d issue an emergency declaration waiving the law that requires under penalty of perjury that a voter attests he or she will be unavoidably absent from the polls in November. An emergency declaration, such as he issued during primary elections, would settle the issue. Words from the governor, secretary of state and party chairs seem to have little meaning as far as the law is concerned.
But under questioning later, that was not the governor’s view. He said with his announcement and support from Thurston, chair of the Board of Election Commissioners, the issue was settled. He will not issue an executive order.
The governor also did not mention spending coronavirus aid on postage, the printing of additional ballots, providing dropbox for ballots or other potential costs of increased absentee voting.
Webb made sure to mention that voter ID, a favorite Republican vote suppression tool, is still required for voting absentee by mail.
Thurston said in-person elections will be held as they have been in the past and that protective gear would be purchased from his federal money for in-person polling places, including disposable stylus pens so voters don’t have to share pens. He made no promises about spending on absentee ballots, whether printing, postage or machinery for tabulating.
Not present at the session were plaintiffs or the lawyer in a lawsuit against Thurston to get a court declaration that the law on unavoidable absence should be voided. The Republican Party has tried to get the lawsuit dismissed. I’m seeking comment from them.
UPDATE: The plaintiffs’ attorney David Couch said today’s announcement doesn’t get the job done:
We need executive order. If not we will just move for summary judgment on that issue of Covid. Recall that the lawsuit not only asked for immediate relief for Covid but for a declaration that “any” excuse to vote absentee is sufficient. We will continue to pursue that issue.
Some questions from reporters drew out more information following the original announcement.
Hutchinson was asked about expanding early voting, whether with a longer period of early voting or different larger venues. He said those things might be considered later. He wanted only to talk about absentee voting today.
In questioning, Thurston said he hoped federal money could be used for postage but said he didn’t want to give a specific answer with a lawsuit pending.
Why not just send an absentee ballot request form to every voter and provide postage to return the form and the ballot, as some other states (led by Republicans) have done? Thurston said there’s no law preventing clerks from doing that. Thurston said, however, it would be a “huge price tag.”
The daily coronavirus count
The state reported 878 new COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours, a record. That moved the state to a total of 22,075. Deaths rose by two, for a total in the state of 279. Hospitalizations fell by three to 272.
Top counties for the day: Hot Spring, with a state prison outbreak, 151; Washington, 117; Pulaski, 98; Benton, 75; Sebastian, 55; Faulkner, 35, and Crawford, 23.
Number of tests in 24 hours: 7,089. The positive rate thus appears to be above 10 percent. Active cases now total nearly 6,000.
Hutchinson AGAIN said, as Donald Trump does, that increases are largely related to increased testing. He also said there’s no trend yet and he hoped the increase would be an “isolated day.”
He continued to insist that the state’s strategy of encouraging social distancing and attempting to improve testing was working, although complaints arose today about a bottleneck in testing in Northwest Arkansas.
Hutchinson was asked about Dr. Anthony Fauci’s advice that bars should be closed or more restricted. Hutchinson didn’t like the idea. “They have invested money; they have capital at stake; they have employees; they have a license.” He said the state “shouldn’t close them down unless there’s a good public health reason to do so.” If guidelines on distancing, capacity and masks are “being abused, we can pull licenses,” he said. “And we will do that.”