Legislative Wrap-Up: Solving the Wrong Problems
In 2008, I decided to run for state office and seek a seat in the Arkansas House of Representatives. If you know me, you know I'm no stranger to politics. My father was an Arkansas lawmaker for many years before me, and I had served my city as mayor of West Memphis from 1987 to 1994.
After more than a decade in the private sector, I felt that I could give my community and my state a public servant within the most beautiful state Capitol in our great nation. I went to Little Rock to make Arkansas a better place to live, learn and work for all Arkansans. Like every state, we have our fair share of problems. And I believe it to be our duty, as state lawmakers and leaders, to be honest about those problems and work toward solving them, or at the very least, begin to chip away at them.
During the regular session of the 93rd General Assembly, we had the chance to chip away at some of our most glaring problems. Problems like consistently poor voter turnout, weak standing in the ranks of public education, and rising violent crime rates. Efforts to pass meaningful legislation to address these concerns were stifled; instead, we added laws to our books that perpetuate these problems.
Voter Turnout: 50th in the Nation
In the 2020 election, only 55.5% of eligible voters cast a ballot. That was good for 50th in the nation, second last among all states and the District of Columbia. That's not good. And a sensible legislature would address a basement-dwelling ranking with bills to promote voting.
The legislature's majority did the opposite.
Both chambers passed HB1715 (Act 736) in April. The measure makes various procedural changes to voting by absentee ballot, including reducing the threshold for possession of ballots in creating a presumption of fraud, voter statements, daily ballot counts, inner envelope access, address verification, and more.
It reduced the number of absentee ballots a person can collect. It requires a comparison of the absentee application signature to that of the voter registration application, which, for older Arkansans, is likely a signature made many years ago. And it adds more steps to the process by which absentee ballots are collected, handled, and reported.
HB1112 (Act 249) was overwhelmingly approved by both chambers in February. This measure removes the code that allows a voter to cast a provisional ballot by signing an affidavit. Instead, the law mandates that the only way to cure a ballot would be to present ID at the county board of elections by noon the following Monday after the election. The county board of elections then must approve the provisional ballot for the vote to count.
In the 2020 general election, a few hundred provisional ballots were cast. The majority of those ballots were cast provisionally because of a problem with the voter database/absentee ballot system, not due to a problem with their identification. This law would require those individuals to come into the courthouse and present their ID on a Monday morning otherwise those votes will be tossed.
By passing this law to address an imaginary issue, legislators added a layer of confusion and difficulty to the election process. The law disproportionately affects low-income, working-class people who don't have the time to take off work to confirm their provisional ballot.
SB643 (Act 973), advanced by a wide margin in April, requires absentee ballots to be delivered to the county clerk's office of the county of residence of the voter by the time the clerk's office closes. It also changes the cut-off time from the day before the election to the Friday before. This is just another bill that was not driven by need but instead inspired by the false claims of election fraud that followed the 2020 presidential election.
The legislature had the opportunity to make some substantive, positive changes to the absentee voting process.
SB701, for example, was a bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Clarke Tucker that would have made numerous amendments to the absentee voting process to streamline it.
• Requiring the county clerk to mail absentee ballots to the voter no later than twenty-five days before each election an absentee ballot for the election and no later than ten days before the corresponding runoff election.
• Allowing the Secretary of State to use plain and simple language on absentee ballot applications
• Allowing absentee and early votes shall be counted before the close of business on the Thursday following election day.
The bill, if passed, would have also provided that absentee ballots shall be tabulated or counted no earlier than 8:30 a.m. on election day and removed the requirement for absentee ballots to have the required materials "properly placed in the outer envelope."
Sen. Tucker's bill would have established a needed procedure for canvassing ballots while protecting the voter's identity. It would have kept ballots from being thrown out prematurely for innocuous reasons and allowed for an absentee ballot that has otherwise been designated provisional under this section may be cured by the voter by the close of business the Monday following the election. Election officials would also have had to notify voters of the deadline and process for curing his or her absentee ballot.
Twenty of the 33 senators present voted against the bill.