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County clerks await approval to accept voter registration forms signed electronically

Arkansas ranked 48th in the nation for voter turnout in 2020.
Arkansas ranked 48th in the nation for voter turnout in 2020.

One of the duties of a county clerk is to register voters who have filled out and signed the appropriate voter registration form. Earlier this year, Washington County Clerk Becky Lewallen began receiving voter registration forms that had been signed electronically. She said she reached out to the state’s chief election official, the Secretary of State, for some guidance on what to do with these forms.

“We kind of told him the situation,” she said, “and we're were told that he didn't want to give us like legal advice just yet, because they were still checking on things. but, to just go and take them and process them as normal.”

By February 28th, Secretary of State John Thurston sent out a memo to all of the county clerks in Arkansas. The letter reads “In an effort to maintain our strong election integrity that we have in the Arkansas election process, I strongly recommend that counties do not accept voter registration applications executed by electronic signature.”

The organization behind the electronic signatures on the forms was Get Loud Arkansas, led by former state senator Joyce Elliott.

“One of our staff members just super imposed the exact same form that’s on the Secretary of State’s website onto an electronic format,” Elliott said.

Elliott points to the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, which allows for electronic signatures to be used for conducting financial transactions, business, as well as governmental affairs.

“All of us who pay taxes,” she said, “signed it with an E-signature, sent it in, [it’s] perfectly legal. That law exists as a federal law and it also exists as a state law to allow folks to do business with an electronic signature.”

If you go to Get Loud Arkansas’ website, you’ll find an option on the top of the page that says “Register To Vote.” You’ll see a pretty standard looking online form. At the top of the form, a paragraph reads “Arkansas is one of only eight states that does not offer online voter registration. In response, Get Loud Arkansas developed a legally compliant digital platform for Arkansans to fill out and sign their voter registration application online. Once completed, we print and mail the application to the appropriate election officials for you.”

Elliott said before they launched this online form, they communicated with the Secretary of State’s office to ensure they were following the law of the land.

“But mainly, it was about the E-signature,” Elliott said. “It was to make sure something that people called a ‘wet signature’ was required, because clerks thought that. Several people thought that, but it was nowhere in the law. And we have an attorney and he had researched it, it is nowhere in the law that a wet signature is required.”

The term “wet signature” is meant to describe a signature made by a physical writing utensil, such as a pen.

Get Loud Arkansas makes it clear on their website: this form is not online voter registration. Elliott said she does not have the authority to register voters, only a county clerk does.

“Even if I knock on your door and you sign it [in person],” Elliott said, “I don’t have the authority. That is absolutely the clerk’s job.”

Elliott said the memo from the Secretary of State to the county clerks was shared with her by a clerk, looking to get clarification on how they were formatting their online version.

“Because that clerk was trying to make sure that she was doing her job and called us about it,” she said. “We assured her that there is a law behind being able to use the electronic signature. And she had gotten this letter and she shared it with us. That was the first time we had seen it. We never got a letter from the Secretary of State,

That letter recommended to the clerk's needed to cease using the electronic signature if they had begun He misinterpreted what we're doing as our attempt to register online. That's clearly not what we're doing. Because it is not, you're not registered until the clerk gets you know the information and says that that you are.”

Lewallen said after Secretary Thurston sent his memo, her office stopped entering in the electronically signed forms.

“When we would get one, we would just mail them a new voter registration application with a little letter that said, ‘I’m Sorry, we cannot process your electronic voter registration application, but go ahead and fill this paper form out and send it back to us, and we will go ahead and process that.’”

The confusion ultimately led to Secretary Thurston reaching out to Attorney General Tim Griffin for clarification. On April 10th, Griffin’s opinion was released. The question asked was “regarding the use of electronic voter registration applications, created by a third-party non-government agency, that include an electronic signature.” Griffin’s answer, in short, was, “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 cannot create and use a different form of its own to register voters.”

Elliott said in her conversations with Secretary Thurston, he put a lot of stock in what the Attorney General’s opinion would be.

“And keep in mind,” Elliott said, “the only issue we had was about the electronic signature. And it seems to me, the Attorney General made it very clear to the secretary of state that this is a legal thing to do nothing wrong with it. And I was thinking this is great because this makes it so much more accessible, makes it easier for people to be able to begin to access the democratic process that we've been talking about.”

The 2024 primary saw just a little over 20% of registered voters turn out for that election. When asked if she believes the combination of low voter turnout and the inaccessibility of registering to vote was making people less enthusiastic, she said it’s some she absolutely fears.

“With the electronic process, the group that we tend to criticize the most are the young people,” she said. “They are absolutely just in bliss over being able to access our democratic process. Through a mechanism they are used to that's all they know is doing most of what say to through an electronic process and sign it electronically. That's what they know. On the other hand, though, is great for folks who are not young, who don't have to try to get out and mail something to somebody to be registered or drive someplace to drop it off. It's just something that people have been really excited about. But, it does bother me and I fear that there will be a damper put on it.”

Before the Attorney General’s opinion, Get Loud Arkansas held a voter registration event at Camden Fairview High School in South Arkansas. The students who would be eligible to vote in the 2024 general election were walked through the process of the online form. However, the Ouachita County Clerk informed Elliott that she wouldn’t be able to accept the electronic signatures.

“Rather than take the chance of those students getting caught up in something that’s an [ancient way] of thinking,” she said, “we had committed to them we would come back and we would make sure that they did it. Even though they had already done what they should do. So, we were back down to that school on that district on [April 12th] to do just what we said. And I was so pleased those students have been so excited about registering that they came back and re-did their registration. And we had taken a printer with us so we could print it on the spot and have them sign it and just and walk it over to the clerk's office.

Elliott said it was an absurd set of circumstances that the students shouldn’t have had to deal with.

Before entering into politics, Elliott was a high school teacher, and she said seeing these students so motivated to be involved lifted her spirits.

“The first time we were down and we did the electronic process, they were so excited and just could not believe [they could] do this on [their] phone. ‘What do you mean, I can do this on my phone?’” Elliott said. “They were just bringing in others students who were eligible to register and it was not as if I had to go out, the kids did the work of involving their peers. This is the age group that I taught in high school. I'm telling you, it was just almost like an out of body experience to see them so excited and focus on doing that. And even when they came back the second time, to redo what we had already done with the guidance of the law and the Secretary of State's office.”

As Lewallen pointed out before, when her office received the electronically signed forms, they sent a new form to those applicants and requested that they send in a new version with a handwritten signature. Regardless, if you are unsure of your voter registration status, now is a good time to go and check.

As of right now, county clerks in Arkansas are waiting for confirmation from the Secretary of State on how to proceed with these forms. But Becky Lewallen in Washington County feels confident.

I’m assuming we’re going to put them in,” Lewallen said. “I honestly think with the Attorney General saying it’s good, my deputy county attorney thinks that they are good to be added. So, I’m just kind of waiting for the last word from the Secretary of State. But, I’m assuming they’re going to go in.”

You can register to vote right now for the general election this November.

Ozarks at Large transcripts are created on a rush deadline by reporters. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of KUAF programming is the audio record.

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Matthew Moore is senior producer for Ozarks at Large.
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