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I have only once voted an absentee ballot.

But this year, like many other voters, I have considered doing it again.

Now I am a senior citizen and in that group that all the health experts say is "somewhat vulnerable," so there is consideration to ring up the local county clerk and request an absentee ballot for Nov. 3.

I am, apparently, not alone in pondering that question for 2020's upcoming election, according to Becky Lewallen, Washington County Clerk.

She says the public has been calling her office, asking about the absentee voting process. And that surge of calls has her rethinking what she needs to do to have enough resources on hand to handle what looks like a real groundswell coming for November.

Before the pandemic, Ms. Lewallen, considered ordering 4,000 printed ballot return envelopes for the 'normal' number of absentee ballots, based on prior general election years.

But she is now considering ordering 40,000, or there about, printed ballot return envelopes – about 10 times the 'normal' amount.

We all know these are not 'normal' times we live in today.

The political climate, and how voters will cast their ballots, even with the standard 15-days early voting period prior to the November General Election, these elected officials know from the telephone calls and questions coming today from voters, may be surging to unforeseen levels.

For example in 2012, there were 1,914 absentee ballots requested in Washington County. Only 1,618 were returned to be counted. And there were a total of 70,932 total ballots cast.

So less than 1 percent voted absentee.

In the last General Election, 2016, some 2,263 absentee ballots were requested, 1,868 were returned to be counted out of a total of 87,607 votes cast – or less than one percent absentee votes.

There is, of course, an ever popular drum beat about a "Voting By-Mail," example from Oregon. There all registered voters are mailed a ballot.

But please understand this -- voting by mail, as is done in Oregon, is not the same as requesting and voting an absentee ballot in Arkansas.

To vote an absentee ballot, a registered voter, must first make an application for an absentee ballot.

You may do that on-line at any of the 75 County Clerk's offices in Arkansas or Ms. Lewallen says you can call her office 444-1711 or email that office at [email protected] Betsy Harrell, the Benton County Clerk, lists her office phone number as 479-271-1013, the office email is [email protected]

If you require the application by mail, you must complete the Absentee Ballot Application, check the reason you are requesting the ballot. Most Arkansas politicians from Gov. Asa Hutchinson, to Secretary of State John Thurston and the local county clerks, are saying check the box that says "unavoidably absent," and this reason, during the viral pandemic, will suffice.

And I hope it will.

Only a court challenge, the "unavoidably absent" excuse may rear its ugly head to the courts, might give you pause to take this route.

I am more worried about the potential of 40,000 absentee ballots in Washington County or even more in Benton County, of how do these get counted on election evening?

Traditionally the various election commissions by law may commence an absentee canvassing at noon on Election Day.

These absentee vote canvassers are poll workers and will sort through and open all the ballots mailed or dropped off at the Clerk's Office. They match up the required voters' statements, photo ID's are checked and signatures on the voters' statements are checked in the voter data base – just like voting in person at the polls.

The names are recorded as having voted and then and only then are the ballots begun to be scanned and counted.

The count of the absentee ballots and the tabulation can only be released AFTER the polls close at 7:30 p.m.

Have the various election commissioners in the state considered what they will do if a much larger number of voters choose absentee voting in 2020?

I'll have more on Absentee Voting next week. Stay tuned.

-- Maylon Rice is a former journalist who worked for several northwest Arkansas publications. He can be reached via email at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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