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Two bills that would tighten restrictions around absentee ballots and increase the power of the state Board of Election Commissioners to investigate complaints won the approval of the Arkansas House on Thursday, over the objection of a lawmaker who equated them with Jim Crow laws.

Meanwhile, the Arkansas Senate approved a bill that would prevent people from lingering near polling places.

Proponents of the bills said they aim to increase election integrity and address problems that they say occurred in the state during the 2020 election.

House action

House Bill 1715 by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, would ban the distribution of unsolicited absentee ballot applications to voters by designated election officials and would make the possession of more than four absentee ballots by one person a rebuttable presumption of intent to defraud.

The legislation would also require that signatures on absentee ballots be compared with signatures on voters' original registration certificates.

The chamber sent HB1715 to the state Senate on a 74-22 vote that was largely along party lines.

Lowery said the measure would create a uniform standard for verifying signatures.

"These are necessary reforms to make sure that we have fair and equitable elections," Lowery said. "We're trying to make sure that the vote meets the guidelines, the integrity that we would want our elections to have."

Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro, made a motion for immediate consideration of the bill after several minutes of questions from lawmakers. The motion passed, and Rep. Joshua Bryant, R-Rogers, later told the House that he voted against the bill because he thought there should have been more discussion.

When testifying for the bill in committee Wednesday and in the House on Thursday, Lowery mentioned a nonprofit group's assistance in "curing" ballots in Pulaski County — reaching out to voters whose ballots had missing photo ID copies or signatures in order to fix them so they could be counted — for the 2020 election. Lowery was joined in presenting the bill to the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs by Deputy Attorney General Doug House on Wednesday.

Lowery and House said the group received and opened absentee ballots, a statement Pulaski County Clerk Terri Hollingsworth said Thursday was untrue.

Hollingsworth said in a written statement Thursday that no absentee ballot returned by voters to the courthouse was opened by the clerk's office, contrary to the testimony Wednesday, and that all requests for absentee ballots passed verification before absentee ballots were sent to the voters who requested them.

"I cannot sit by quietly and allow our office to be attacked and damaged by blatant lies. My staff worked tirelessly to ensure that thousands of Pulaski County voters safely and securely returned their absentee ballots to the courthouse even during a pandemic. I understand the need for our legislators to ensure integrity in our election process, but you can't seek integrity without speaking with honesty and truth," Hollingsworth said.

House Bill 1803, also sponsored by Lowery, would give the state Board of Election Commissioners the authority to institute corrective actions in response to complaints and would expand the types of violations about which county election boards can make complaints.

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