Secretary of State John Thurston

Secretary of State John Thurston corrected himself after today’s press conference on COVID-19, where it was announced that he and the governor have declared that fear of contracting the novel coronavirus satisfied the law on absentee ballots: Director of Elections Leslie Bellamy said that a signed affidavit, which is attached to the ballot and signifies the signatory is a registered voter, will qualify the ballot as a true vote, not a provisional one. Thurston had said he thought that without a copy of an ID, even with the signature, the ballot would be provisional. If the ballot is returned without a signature, the vote will be considered provisional.

To apply for absentee ballots, voters must call the county clerk in the county in which they are registered and ask that an application be sent to them. Alternatively, if they have printers in their homes, they may print an application from the Secretary of State’s website.

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Pulaski County Clerk Terri Hollingsworth said the county could not simply mail applications for ballots to all registered voters because it would be cost-prohibitive. Bellamy said there were problems with a mass mailout, because addresses on file may be incorrect. Thurston said county clerks could choose to mail out applications to all voters, but didn’t indicate he’d help pay for it. He said he has not made a decision on whether to provide CARES Act funds to clerks to pay for postage on returned ballots.

Hollingsworth also said the staff has discussed various safety measures, like allowing people to vote in large venues like the Simmons Bank Arena or secure drop-boxes that could be placed in drive-throughs. Any such changes, including adding on early voting days, would have to be sanctioned by the state and county Election Commission. 

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Asked if she would have to hire staff to handle what could be a huge number of absentee ballots, Hollingsworth said she is training her entire staff — including those who do not work in elections — to handle the ballots. If her staff proves insufficient, she’ll ask Thurston for CARES Act funds to hire helpers.

(Thurston declined to talk about how the CARES Act dollars will be distributed, citing the lawsuit filed against his office. That lawsuit contests the state law that says absentee ballots may be issued only to military personnel, people who are abroad or persons “unavoidably absent or unable to attend an election due to illness or physical disability.”

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Hollingsworth urged voters who know they want to vote absentee to call now for an application to cast an absentee ballot. The deadline to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 27, but Hollingsworth said the earlier the staff can begin sending ballots out the better. An absentee ballot may be picked up in person no later than Nov. 2. The ballot must be cast by 7 p.m. Nov. 3.