Voting in the Age of COVID-19

By John C. Davis

In the age of the COVID-19 global pandemic, we must attempt to acclimate our lives around a new, temporary, normality and work together to ensure our civic institutions remain intact in this time of crisis. As a grandson, son, husband, and father, my primary and immediate concern is for the health and safety of loved ones and strangers alike. As a political scientist, I am also very concerned about the potential impact the novel coronavirus,—COVID-19—might have on elections in November.

Arkansans must now begin to plan for the upcoming elections to ensure that they are conducted in a way that is safe and accessible. We’ve already seen this highly contagious virus compel states and territories to alter elections. As of March 24th, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico have postponed elections planned for this spring in order to protect their residents and prevent further spread. While these measures, in my opinion, are responsible steps that align well with current guidelines by health experts to minimize outings and maintain social distancing, the practice of postponing primary elections should not and cannot tempt us into allowing our general elections in the fall to undergo significant alteration or force us to adopt untested means by which to facilitate voting. Nor can we assume everything will return to normal by fall. The prospect of COVID-19 forcing states to reschedule or significantly alter elections with unknown effects to turnout or accessibility, of any type, even in a time of extraordinary challenges, should concern us all. At the same time, we cannot ignore the very real threat to public safety that having traditional voting at polling sites poses.

The coming months will test our ability—as a nation and state—to mobilize efforts to ensure the most vital tool of the democratic experiment is not blunted by our current situation or by our inability to adapt and persevere. Therein lies our puzzle. We will need to adapt and innovate while being mindful to do so in such a way that does not drastically alter our elections or negatively impact a voter’s ability to cast a ballot. Much like the response to the current health and economic crises, the comprehensive solution to the civic problem we will soon face will require multiple levels of government accepting their respective roles and taking responsibility for that which they are able to control. In our federalist governmental structure—a system of government stemming from a multi- layered interplay between national, state, county, and local governments and jurisdictions—elections are largely regulated and facilitated at the state and local levels in the United States. That means that, while assistance in the way of funds and collaboration from the U.S. government might be needed, our focus should be on Arkansas’s capacity to be responsive and capable of conducting elections in the time of an unprecedented health emergency.

Fortunately, Arkansas already has a proven mechanism in place that allows us to significantly reduce social interaction and conduct our most sacred civic practice—absentee voting. Absentee voting is facilitated by mail. Additionally, thanks to federalism, we can also study and learn from other states’ practices to inform our steps, moving forward. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, all states have some mechanism in place to permit absentee voting by mail. Approximately two-thirds of states allow registered voters the opportunity to vote absentee without giving a qualified reason or seeking a permissible excuse, while roughly one-third—including Arkansas—requires the voter to provide a reason for seeking to vote by mail. According to a Supreme Court of Arkansas case, Forrest v. Baker (1985), qualified excuses include anticipating the inability to get to a designated polling place before it closes, work schedule conflicts, and “sickness in the family” are among the permissible reasons to request an absentee ballot in Arkansas. This means what, while Arkansas requires voters give a proper reason to absentee vote—or vote by mail—a great many states already allow their voting residents the opportunity without citing a permissible reason for doing so. In short, Arkansas could rest assured that—should we seek to permit absentee voting free of such a restriction temporarily—many states already consider this a standard practice and see very few issues arise from the voting method.

The state justification requirement, in our current time of health crisis, is too cumbersome and time is of the essence. However, the remedy to permanently alter the state’s absentee voting justification requirement would require, at the least, a change to the state code and perhaps a constitutional amendment, the state would need an emergency order to carry out this temporary alteration to our elections.

Unfortunately, absentee voting has become something of a political football as of late. This is very unfortunate. Recently, a bi-partisan attempt by some members of the General Assembly to permit no excuse absentee voting in Arkansas for the November elections was voted down.

There is a solution, however. Governor Hutchinson’s recently issued Executive Order 20-08 suspends temporarily some provisions of election laws. The governor’s order removes the requirement for a voter to present an excuse and permits counties to reduce their number of physical polling sites to one—encouraging voters to continue to practice social distancing and avoid groups by voting via absentee ballot. While this order was directed at the immediate situation faced with imminent primary run-off elections in certain parts of the state, this portion of his order could simply be maintained until November or ordered again as we get closer to the general election.

Considering that it already exists in Arkansas and is likely going to be requested by more voters in the Natural State this upcoming election cycle than ever before anyway, absentee voting would be the most sensible near outright, temporary replacement for in-person voting to address the health concerns associated with lining up in a cramped polling place, sharing ink pens, paper, and equipment (touch screens) for the November elections. This is the most sensible solution to this temporary problem: a less restrictive process for obtaining an absentee ballot and a robust effort to distribute and process mail in ballots at an unprecedented scale.

What would it take for the state to meet unprecedented demand for absentee voting in November? A shared desire to see our elections continue uninterrupted and conducted in such a way so as not to further risk the spread of COVID-19 from voters and public officials. Further, we would need to be willing to act fast and accomplish our objective without a statutory change or constitutional amendment and provide resources where needed to maintain electoral integrity. For Arkansas to ensure voting occurs safely in November, in a manner that limits the spread of COVID-19, and is accessible to all voters, we must support another Emergency Order from Governor Hutchinson—or a continuation of the presently enacted one. Also, we must ensure Secretary of State John Thurston, his staff, and all county and local elections officials have the funds and resources necessary to aggressively implement a persistent information campaign, print an absentee ballot for each voter, and accurately count and report results in a timely manner.

Given the human and economic toll of COVID-19, the issue posed here is likely not in the minds of many today. However, it is vitally important that planning begin now to ensure the necessary changes to our voting procedures and the requisite means are in place long before Tuesday, November

3rd. Fortunately, we need not reinvent the wheel in order to carry out our chief civic responsibility in the age of a global pandemic. The solution already exists in the form of absentee voting, albeit in a broader application at an unprecedented scale for our state, and the emergency powers of Governor Hutchinson.

This is a serious problem with a practical, pragmatic solution. It’s up to us to take on the challenge. As a scholar of Arkansas politics and policy, and a native of the Natural State, I am optimistic that we are all up to the task.

Note: An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Talk Business/Hendrix Poll Suggests Bloomberg Surge, No Clear Democratic Presidential Favorite in Arkansas

By John C. Davis

The Arkansas Preferential Primary Election and Nonpartisan General Election will be held on March 3rd (with early voting beginning on February 18th).

According to the most recently released Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College Poll, The poll asked 496 likely Arkansas Democratic primary voters who they preferred in the upcoming primary election. According to the results of the poll, Democrats in the state are virtually split between former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (19.6%), former Vice President Joe Biden (18.5%), U.S. Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders (16.4%), and former South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg (15.5%).

While Bloomberg’s rise in both national and statewide polls is noteworthy, the results of this poll are not so much telling us who is most favored, but how tight the field of candidates currently remains (the margin for error in the poll is +/- 4.3%) and how fluid preferences are (with 11% of respondents stating that they are undecided). Furthermore, 2% of those polled indicated a preference for Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has since dropped out of the race.

Yang’s departure from the field is a reminder to political observers that the field of candidates continues to winnow and may become smaller still, prior to March 3rd. Given the timing of the poll (conducted on February 6-7), I expect to see considerable movement in Arkansans Democrats’ preferences between now and March 3rd as observers continue to consume media coverage of last night’s New Hampshire Primary results and will soon watch returns from Nevada and South Carolina.

Each candidate is seeking to claim what George H.W. Bush once called “the ‘big Mo’” whereby a candidate capitalizes on favorable caucus and/or primary results, creating a media narrative that he or she has become the front-runner. To date, one day after the New Hampshire Primary, we have not yet seen momentum clearly advantage anyone in the field of candidates. However, it is becoming clearer that Biden and Warren—once considered favorites for the nomination—are failing to meet expectations at the polls. On March 3rd, Arkansas will be one of several states who have opted to hold their primary on “Super Tuesday.” Following this multi-state coordinated primary date, we can expect significant winnowing of the field of candidates. Who will remain in the race after March 3rd, at this point, is anyone’s guess.

Drew County 1-Cent Sales & Use Tax Discussed at The SEARK Political Animals Club

By John C. Davis

February 3, 2020

The first meeting of the year for the Southeast Arkansas Political Animals Club was called to order on Monday. The featured speaker was Charlie Searcy, Drew County Treasurer. The topic of discussion was the upcoming special election regarding a reinstatement of a one-cent Drew County sales and use tax for the development and maintenance of county roads.

Originally passed by voters in 1996, the tax had previously been renewed by the public every six years until this past summer. At that time, the latest renewal question failed on the ballot by a mere 14 votes, 187 to 173. At the meeting, the County Treasurer said during his presentation, that he and other county officials “take blame” for the low turnout and overall result of last summer’s special election as the issue was not often publicly discussed.

The one-cent sales tax, according to Searcy, had generated over $14 million for Drew County roads or roughly $2.3 million per year since he took office in 2013. He estimated approximately 40% of the revenue generated from the tax comes from individuals outside of Drew County from their in-county consumer purchases. The Treasurer also pointed out that Drew County had 362 miles of road with 135 unpaved and 227 paved.

The special election is scheduled for February 11 with early voting beginning on February 4th. This election will feature new voting equipment and be the first since the Drew County Election Commission voted to consolidate polling locations–closing some rural voting sites and permitting voters to attend any of the remaining “voting centers” regardless of the precinct to which they have been previously assigned. More on this later…..

A Late, Brief Recap Of The 2018 Mid Term Election Early Voting Numbers in Arkansas

By John C. Davis

Traditionally, midterm elections see a decrease in turnout from that of presidential election years. These “off year” races, despite the relative lack of voter interest historically, are incredibly important. If you compare Arkansas midterm early voting numbers overtime, you find a considerable increase. In fact, the 2018 early vote total in Arkansas increased from 2014, a record year.

Nationally, our most recent midterm election saw significant shifts in leadership in Congress, as Democrats won the majority of seats in a midterm for the first time since 2006, and Republicans maintained control of the Senate. At the state level, Republicans fared much better. All four of Arkansas’ U.S. House of Representatives were re-elected and all are Republicans. At the state level, all victorious constitutional offices remained in Republican hands as did majorities in the state legislature. Election night did not go without some surprises at the state-level, however, with a few legislative incumbents losing their re-election bids. Northwest Arkansas Republican Charlie Collins lost to Denis Garner, a Democrat, and Michael John Gray, incumbent legislator and Democratic Party of Arkansas chairperson, lost his re-election bid to a Republican challenger.

My wife and I were blessed with our second child on December 3rd and, thus, I am more than a little behind with my number crunching of elections data. However, there are interesting (if not late) data to review. This graphic depicts the early vote turnout patterns for Drew County, Arkansas. drew county early votingWe see something resembling an inverted “bell curve” as the first and final days of early voting appear to have been the busiest early voting days in the county.

On The Passing Of George H. W. Bush

By John C. Davis

George_H._W._Bush,_President_of_the_United_States,_1989_official_portraitThis morning, we learned of the passing of a legendary figure in our country and one of the most significant figures in the 20th Century; George H. W. Bush. President Bush answered every time the country asked him to serve as a veteran and war hero in World War II, a member of Congress, CIA Director, Vice President, and President. A family man, he remained married to his wife for 73 years, until her passing this past spring.

George H. W. Bush was a lifelong public servant and the type of political figure we seek out in our wiser moments as an electorate. While his list of accomplishments extends decades, perhaps his most significant public achievement was serving as a steady hand who steered the nation’s course during the fall of the Soviet Union. After losing his re-election bid for President to Bill Clinton in 1992, we saw a partisan politician who graciously accepted defeat as humbly as he had claimed victory. An optimistic and selfless leader, he held power reluctantly and only did so to try to do right. We need more like him. I pray that we have more like him. Thank you and rest in peace, GHWB.

Is It Time To Rethink Judicial Selection In Arkansas?

By John C. Davis

Over the course of the last campaign season, Arkansans witnessed a race with very negative ads, funded largely by out of state groups, making accusations of unethical behavior. Newspapers columns and Letters to the Editor were filed discussing the bitterness of this political contest. The stakes were high as voters would determine who would serve in the important state elected position. In the race, we saw an incumbent—seen by many to be a clear early front-runner with considerable statewide campaign experienceAR Court Seal —facing a bold challenger with strong support from like-minded, well-funded, ideological groups and voters alike. You might ask yourself, “Which race is he referencing? The race for Governor? One of the races for U.S. House of Representatives? Or maybe the tight three-way race for Mayor of our state’s capital city?”

Nope. I am referring to yet another ugly political battle for a seat on our state’s highest court.

Voters in the Natural State have elected judges for a very long time. Since 2000, when voters approved a constitutional amendment to remove partisanship from judicial races, these electoral contests have been nonpartisan. Arkansans generally like playing an active role in deciding who will fill these important positions. However, recent events lead me to expect more discussion from lawmakers, and voters alike, concerning whether or not reforms are needed to maintain the public’s esteem for the court.

This year’s judicial race, for one of the Court’s Associate Justice seats pitted an incumbent member of the bench, Courtney Goodson against Department of Human Services Chief Counsel David Sterling. The race was actually a run-off from last spring’s primary and non-partisan judicial election. The contest was particularly negative in tone as at least one prominent outside group, The Judicial Crisis Network, spent well over a million dollars broadcasting advertisements against Associate Justice Goodson. The group(s) that provided the financial backing for these ads are often referred to as “dark money” organizations because such entities do not have to disclose their donors. In all fairness, another characteristic of these groups is that they cannot coordinate with a campaign, so these ads were not directly coming from David Sterling or his campaign team. While negative campaigning is not new to Arkansas politics, we had grown accustomed to relatively civil races for the judicial positions. Only recently has the negativity that so often plagues other electoral contests founds its way into these particular campaigns. Regardless of who you favored for these races, most of us see the need for our judicial system to operate above the fray of petty politics and close observers of the court often acknowledge the importance and value of this governmental branch maintaining such a public perception.

Out of concern for the possibility of a tarnished perception brought onto the court by the increased role of money and politics, some have proposed different methods for selecting our state’s highest court’s judges. In previous meetings of the Arkansas General Assembly, legislation to alter judicial selection has been authored and submitted but failed to garner significant support. A few years ago, Representative Matthew Shepherd, a Republican from El Dorado who will serve as the Speaker of the House for the 2019-2020 Arkansas General Assembly, submitted legislation that would have begun the process of shifting from popular election of Supreme Court justice positions to an alternative form of judicial selection.  More recently, Governor Asa Hutchinson expressed support for a system of judicial selection similar to what has become commonly referred to as the “Missouri Plan.”  Under this method, a vacancy on the court is filled by the governor selecting a name from a list created by a commission. At the end of a trial period, the judge goes before the public in the form of a retention election—no opponent.

According to the American Bar Association, seven states elect their judges to their state’s highest court by partisan election. Arkansas, along with 13 other states, elects their highest court’s justices in nonpartisan elections. 29 states have some version of an appointment process. Of those 29, 17 of them hold retention elections after the initial appointment.

Will this most recent election cycle’s events lead to more support for alternatives championed by Representative Shepherd and Governor Hutchinson? Only time will tell. It is my opinion that prospects for such drastic change to judicial selection in Arkansas are doubtful. In all fairness, even a merit-based system such as the “Missouri Plan” would likely do little to stop the meddling of outside groups or even negative campaign tactics.  However, the issue is as politically ripe as it has ever been and policy making relies heavily on windows of opportunity. The public mudslinging and “dark money” we have come to expect in practically all electoral races, except judicial contests, has finally reached the state’s judiciary. Perhaps it is time we rethink judicial selection in Arkansas.

Note: An earlier version of this post has appeared in southeast Arkansas media outlets

Third Parties: The Third Wheels of U.S. Politics

By John C. Davis

Given the frustration expressed by so many with the status quo, it is reasonable to wonder if things would be improved with one or a few viable parties in addition to the Democratic and Republican parties.

In this context, the term “third party” refers to a political party organization that is an alternative to the two major parties in the United States. You are probably familiar with a few “third parties”: the Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Constitution Party. While they rarely see their candidates win public office, each of these three alternative parties has some level of organizational presence in several states across the U.S.

Given how blindingly mad we can become at the two major parties, why do we not see more third party candidates successfully attain public office?

First, the rules governing elections and ballot access are decided by the states’ partisan elected officials. In many states, it is quite difficult for a fledgling third party to gain access on a statewide ballot every election cycle. Therefore, these parties are, more often than not, unable to compete for many statewide offices, minimizing their visibility with the public, and perpetuating the perception that they are a “wasted vote” when they do appear on a ballot.

In addition to ballot access, our means of representation further impede third-party successes. In most elections in the U.S., the top vote earner is the only one in the field of candidates who gets to represent that particular ward, district, or state. This is because we have long employed single-member districts for representation. In other words, even if a third party earns 25% of the overall vote for, say, the 4th U.S. Congressional District of Arkansas, that party will not be represented in D.C.

Reforms, I suppose, are possible, but would require significant changes to how we distribute seats based on votes earned. Some proportional system—in which a party garnering 25% of the vote is then rewarded 1/4th of the state legislative seats allocated to that particular jurisdiction—might produce an environment more conducive to third party viability. However, again, it seems unlikely that Democrats and Republicans would favor such reform—leaving third parties disadvantaged.

It is no accident that the Democratic and Republican parties have dominated electoral politics since the 1850s. They are good at what they do—winning. Both parties are adept at evolving to grow and maintain coalitions to win elections. Democrats and Republicans often co-opt popular issues from third parties—leaving these groups little else to promote. Unlike most third parties, the Republican and Democratic parties are broadly-focused “big tent” parties and tend to block out third parties’ policy space. Many third parties focus on only a few issues or exist on the far left or far right of American ideological space.

Finally, even though we express disapproval of both major parties in public opinion polls, an overwhelming majority of us are ‘closet partisans’ who regularly vote for one of the two major parties. While at least a plurality of us claim to be “independent” voters, we remain—often secretly—attached to our major parties. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that we are becoming more strongly aligned with our two major parties. Split-ticket voting (a voter voting for Democrats and Republicans for different races on the same ballot) is on the decline.

WAPO split

Source: Washington Post

Would our political climate be better with another party or two? It is hard to say. On the one hand, there is little evidence to suggest governments with multiple parties are more stable than ours or that multiple parties create an environment conducive to better representation. In other words, adding more parties would not likely address the frustrations expressed by many, on both sides of the political aisle, this election cycle. On the other hand, additional parties might encourage more voter participation–enticing some of the thousands in Arkansas qualified to vote, but who fail to do so. Finally, “third” parties in Arkansas have shown signs of growth. Recent elections have a growing number of candidates on state and local ballots representing the Green and Libertarian parties. Might we one day see a time with a viable three (or four) party system in the U.S.?

Note: An earlier version of this post has appeared in southeast Arkansas media outlets