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story.lead_photo.caption A sign outside an early voting location that was opened earlier this month at the Hot Springs Mall for the preferential primaries, nonpartisan general election, District 22 special election, and annual school elections. - Photo by Richard Rasmussen of The Sentinel-Record

The State Board of Election Commissioners notified county clerks and election boards Monday that health risks caused by large public gatherings qualify all voters to vote absentee in the March 31 preferential primary and annual school election runoff.

Early voting for Position 4 on the Lakeside School Board begins March 24. According to the state's election calendar, March 24 is also the deadline for county clerks to receive absentee ballot applications by mail, fax or email. The clerk's office said applying by mail should be done as soon as possible.

Applications are also available on the county's website, http://www.garlandcounty.org, by entering "absentee ballot" in the search bar. Those with questions can call the clerk's office at 622-3610.

The state election code limits absentee voting to people who are unavoidably absent from their voting place or who can't get to the polls because of illness or disability, but a letter the State Board of Election Commissioners sent local election officials Monday said circumstances warrant an expansion of the applicant pool.

"The SBEC is taking the position that warnings from public health officials to avoid large gatherings of people when possible is a sufficient basis for voters who ordinarily would not qualify for absentee voting to do so in the March 31 primary runoff election," the letter said.

The SBEC recommended older people shouldn't be selected as poll workers, given their vulnerability to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

"The information currently available suggests that the most severe risk posed by this virus is to our aging population," the letter said. "Many counties commonly utilize poll workers who are of an age which should place them at greater risk of serious complications from COVID-19. ... The SBEC recommends not appointing any poll worker who is considered an older adult or a person who has serious chronic medical condition."

Garland County Election Commission Chairman Gene Haley said he's ordered additional absentee ballots, and that the clerk's office has asked Lakeside to send out information about absentee voting. The runoff is between incumbent Carla Mouton, a retired Lakeside teacher, and mortgage banker Brian French. Mouton won a 40% plurality in the four-way election. French won 25% of the vote.

"There is no mechanism in Arkansas law for anyone to postpone or reschedule an election," Haley said. "Us and several other counties have asked the governor and attorney general to petition the courts for a judgment, but who knows if that will happen. I've asked the prosecuting attorney to look into it but haven't heard back."

March 30 is the deadline to pick up absentee applications in person at the Garland County Court House. It's also the deadline for in-person delivery of absentee ballots. They can be received by mail until 7:30 p.m. on election day. A voter's designated bearer or authorized agent also has until 7:30 p.m. on election day.

Local on 03/17/2020

Print Headline: Officials encourage absentee voting in Lakeside runoff

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