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These are stories related to the 2024 election.

New rule may alter 500 voters' registration status, says Get Loud Arkansas

Get Loud Arkansas hosted a rally outside the state Capitol on April 23, 2024 following the Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners’ decision to limit the use of electronic signatures on voter registration applications.
Sonny Albarado
Arkansas Advocate
Get Loud Arkansas hosted a rally outside the state Capitol on April 23, 2024 following the Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners’ decision to limit the use of electronic signatures on voter registration applications.

An Arkansas legislative committee on Thursday will consider an emergency rule that permits electronic signatures on voter registration applications only when they’re completed at certain state agencies.

If approved, the emergency rule would require paper registration applications to include a “wet signature,” meaning an applicant signs with a pen.

The Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners approved the emergency rule last Tuesday. Director Chris Madison said the rule is designed to create consistency because currently, electronic signatures are accepted by some county clerks and rejected by others.

“Because we had voters being treated differently depending on what county they were in, we needed to put a stop on everything. That way everybody’s being treated the same,” Madison said.

If approved by the Arkansas Legislative Council’s Executive Subcommittee Thursday, the emergency rule will be effective for 120 days. Madison said the board will soon begin drafting a permanent rule that will be informed by feedback from a 30-day public comment period and a public hearing.

Because voter registration is an ongoing process, Madison said it was important to make the change now because it will be easier to correct paperwork for currently affected applicants, instead of waiting for that number to grow.

“What we don’t want happening is those voters showing up in November and having problems voting because of the confusion about their application, and that’s why the emergency rule was adopted was basically, hey, let’s just stop,” Madison said. “We’re going to draw a line in the sand, so to speak, and then we can work through the process and do the due process procedures to get a rule in place. That way if I apply in one county or I apply in another county, I’m treated the same.”

The rule has a direct impact on the work of Get Loud Arkansas, a nonprofit organization focused on increasing voter turnout through initiatives like voter registration drives. Arkansas has the lowest voter registration and turnout rates in national elections, according to a 2023 National Conference on Citizenship report.

To make the registration process easier, deputy executive director Kristin Foster said Get Loud Arkansas rolled out an online portal in January that assisted applicants in completing the voter registration form, which they signed with an electronic signature.

Get Loud Arkansas sought clarification about the validity of electronic signatures from lawyers and the Secretary of State’s office before launching its initiative, Foster said. Now the new emergency rule could potentially affect roughly 500 voters the nonprofit has registered since the start of the year, she said.

“It’s just like every time we step up to meet the rules, they just keep changing them, and where does that stop,” Foster said.

Get Loud Arkansas is exploring all options, including legal action, Foster said, because it’s important to “make sure no one loses their access to voter registration over this obvious suppression.”

“If getting registered to vote and being a voter did not matter, none of this would be happening,” she said. “When people think that their vote doesn’t matter, they should see how seriously some people take preventing that vote and that should be a pretty clear indicator that it really matters.”

Madison said the board’s decision is about making a rule that works for everyone. If voters have any question about the validity of their application, he said they can submit a new hand-signed form to their county clerk.

Seeking clarity

The emergency rule requires a permanent registrar (typically the county clerk) to accept a voter registration form that is complete and legible; executed with a signature or mark made by the voter registration applicant; and submitted by mail, delivered in person, or delivered by a third-party registration organization.

The registrar also must accept legible and properly completed applications submitted by “Authorized Computer Voter Registration Agencies” as set forth in Amendment 51 of the Arkansas Constitution.

The emergency rule defines those agencies as ones that are “specifically authorized to utilize computer processes as part of the agency’s interaction with its customers, program recipients, or participants of disability programs.” These agencies are:

  • The Office of Driver Services of the Revenue Division of the Department of Finance and Administration. 
  • State Revenue Offices.
  • Public assistance agencies that provide services like Medicaid, SNAP and WIC.
  • Disability agencies that offer state-funded programs that primarily provide services to people with disabilities. 

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The Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners’ approval of this emergency rule was precipitated by various requests to state agencies for clarification on electronic versus wet signatures.

In February, Foster reached out to the Secretary of State’s office about voter registration form signature requirements because Get Loud Arkansas had identified “discrepancies in some counties that appear to be disproportionately affecting young, first-time registrants,” according to an email obtained by the Arkansas Times.

In response, a spokesman said while “it’s a sensitive issue” that’s not clear in law, the Secretary of State didn’t see how an electronic signature should be treated differently than a wet one. However, he noted this shouldn’t be treated as an official legal opinion.

Secretary of State John Thurston did seek an opinion from Attorney General Tim Griffin, who in an April 10 opinion said “while an electronic signature or mark is generally valid under Arkansas law,” the registration form must be created and distributed by the Secretary of State. A third-party organization can’t create and use a different form of its own to register voters, he said.

In March, former Pulaski County election commissioner, Michael Massucco requested a declaratory order from the Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners. Similar to an attorney general’s opinion, Arkansans can seek clarity from the board, which has enforcement authority over election and voter registration laws, Madison said.

While an attorney general’s opinion is not legally binding, Madison said a declaratory order has some binding authority. It allows the agency with enforcement authority over an area of law to say “this is how we interpret this law and this is how we’re going to apply it,” he said.

The declaratory order issued by the board regarding voter registration signatures underpins the new emergency rule, Madison said.

Editor's Note: This story Arkansas lawmakers to examine new voter registration signature rule appeared first on Arkansas Advocate.

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.
Arkansas Advocate intends to show how state government affects the lives of everyday Arkansans so they can make informed decisions about themselves, their families and their communities.