Election Commission director outlines new safety measures for upcoming election amid the pandemic

Jennifer Price, Washington County Election executive director, and Max Deitchler, a member of the Washington County Election Commission, count early voting ballots inside the Washington County Courthouse in November of 2016.

Photo: Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer Staff

Plexiglass barriers, disposable styluses, socially-distanced lines, and a significant increase in absentee voting will likely all be part of the upcoming election in November, according to the Washington County Election Commission executive director Jennifer Price.

Price said the commission has been watching primary and special elections around the country in recent months for what is working for other officials charged with keeping voters and poll workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the commission will apply those principles locally for two elections coming up in Washington County this fall.

“We have looked at what has happened in other states that have held primaries and special elections at what they have done right, and what they may have done wrong,” Price said.

A special election set for August 11 in Springdale, where voters will decide whether to consolidate the city of Bethel Heights into the city, will provide a smaller-scale test run for officials to apply their learnings from the last few months before the larger general election coming up on November 3, Price said.

Price said several new election day procedures will be in place for the smaller August special election, and those new policies and procedures will be in full-effect for November. Those measures include a new check-in procedure designed to limit contact between the poll worker and voter, new plexiglass barriers at all polling locations, and disposable styluses that voters can use both to sign a touch screen for their ballot and to cast their vote using voting machines without having to touch the screens.

Other procedures also in the works designed to limit contact at the polls include re-positioned ballot printers so the voter will be responsible for placing the ballot in machine instead of the poll worker. Poll workers will still ask for ID, she said, and will verify data from the IDs but won’t actually handle them. Ballot workers won’t walk with voters to the voting machines, though Price says poll workers will be available to help if voters need assistance.

Additional cleaning/sanitation measures will also be in place at polling places, and poll workers will wear masks and gloves provided by the election commission.

Funds for the extra safety equipment will come from the state’s portion of federal funding provided by the CARES Act, the COVID-19 relief package passed by congress back in March, Price said.

In addition to the in-person safety measures the commission is planning for this fall, Price said she is also expecting a significant increase in those who request ballots to vote absentee this year.

Price said in a typical election, only about 2% of voters vote via the absentee method. With lingering concerns over COVID-19 still expected for this fall, she said the commission is planning for anywhere from 10-40% of voters to vote absentee in November.

Washington County prints absentee ballots in-house, she said, though she has ordered a considerable amount of extra ballot stock in anticipation of the uptick in absentee ballots needed this fall, as well as two additional on-demand ballot printers. She also plans to bring in additional staff to help process the expected uptick in absentee ballots this year.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson has said he believes he has until August to decide whether to issue an executive order that would allow for no-excuse absentee voting in the state. Secretary of State John Thursday issued a statement last week saying he believes existing state law would allow for those concerned about COVID-19 to vote absentee without changing the laws, though Price said election commissioners will still need assistance via executive order from the governor to handle some of the administrative issues an increase in absentee voting could cause.

Update: Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson announced on Thursday during his regular COVID-19 response press conference that he agrees with Thurston’s statement last week that any Arkansan concerned about COVID-19 can request an absentee ballot, and vote absentee in the upcoming election. The chairmen of both the Republican and Democratic parties were on hand at the conference, and also expressed support for absentee voting.

“We’ve asked for an additional week to canvas absentee ballots, and that would require an executive order,” she said. “There are a couple of other administrative-type things that we are asking for (from the governor via executive order) that don’t necessarily impact the voters.”

The expected increase in absentee voting this fall will present some other challenges as well, she said.

“There will be a lot of voters that be voting absentee for the first time,” she said. “The thing we want to stress is, if you do not fill out your statement correctly, your ballot will not count.

“When the voter is voting that absentee ballot, and let’s just say, they forgot to write their birthday down, we can’t count that ballot, so simple things like that will cause an absentee ballot to not be counted and we don’t want to run into that situation,” Price said. “We want them to take the time to fill it out thoroughly, correctly, mark the correct box, and make sure they are filled out back to us in a timely manner.”

The deadline to request an absentee ballot to be mailed to you is 7 days before the election, but Price said she is encouraging those interested in voting absentee this year to get their requests in earlier.

“If we were to receive 10,000 requests on that deadline, the ability to get those out becomes strained,” she said. “We are asking voters not to wait until that last day, because you have to receive the ballot, and get it back by election day.”

Those who don’t receive their ballot in time could still vote a provisional ballot on election day, she said.

Fayetteville voters may request an absentee ballot from the county clerk through an application available via the Washington County website.