EVERY VOTE MATTERS: In local races with tight margins, a few mail-in ballots can be decisive. Brian Chilson

This story has been updated to add a statement from Get Loud Arkansas’s executive director, former state Sen. Joyce Elliott.

In 2024, you can electronically sign documents to buy insurance, apply for a credit card or take out a mortgage. But e-signing a voter registration form in Arkansas may soon be forbidden, at least outside of a government office.

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So says the staff of the State Board of Election Commissioners, which meets Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. to consider a draft rule and an associated “declaratory order” on electronic signatures and other issues. A signature on a voter registration form “must be made by a wet signature or wet mark applied to the paper form by the voter without the use of a computer-generated signature or mark or computer-reproduced signature or mark,” the proposed order says.

The draft rule comes in response to efforts by a group called Get Loud Arkansas to register more voters. Get Loud provides a digital platform for Arkansans to fill out and sign their voter registration application online, after which the group prints and mails the applications to elections officials. Arkansas, which has one of the lowest rates of voter participation in the country, is one of only a few states that still doesn’t allow voters to register online directly.

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The draft rule from the state board says the workaround from Get Loud is off the table. It says electronic signatures are permitted only on voter registration forms filled out at certain “registration agencies,” such as the DMV, which are explicitly authorized to use a “computer process” under Amendment 51 of the state constitution.

That directly contradicts an opinion from Attorney General Tim Griffin’s office earlier this month, which said an electronic signature on an official state-issued voter registration form should count the same as a “wet” signature made with a pen. Griffin cited a 2001 law that declares e-signatures are valid and legal for many transactions. But the state board’s staff says Amendment 51 trumps the 2001 law.

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Does Amendment 51 forbid e-signatures? It does not. But, because it authorizes some but not all government agencies involved in registration to use a “computer process,” the draft rule says, that implies “computer processes” can’t be used in other methods of voter registration.

“A voter registration application completed and submitted, other than through an identified Registration Agency, cannot include the use of computerized signatures or marks,” it says. 

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The statement appears to go further than simply banning e-signatures. It also suggests that a person who fills out a voter registration form online, prints it off, and signs it with a pen would still not be properly registered because of the forbidden use of a “computer process” to make marks on a piece of paper.

Former state Sen. Joyce Elliott, Get Loud’s executive director, had strong words for the state board and its proposed rule.

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“This is not governance; this is tyrannical overreach cloaked in bureaucracy,” she said. “We cannot, and we will not stand idly by while the fundamental pillars of our society are chiseled away by those who seek to disenfranchise the very electorate they are sworn to serve.”

Chris Madison, the staff director at the State Board of Election Commissioners, said the board will review the draft tomorrow and decide whether to adopt it as an emergency rule, change it, or ask staff to make revisions. Madison declined to comment on the substance of the rule until the board has voted.

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Asked about the recent attorney general’s opinion that says e-signatures on voter registration forms are OK, Madison said, “AG opinions are great, but that’s what they are — opinions.”

The dispute over the validity of Get Loud’s digital platform began in February, when Secretary of State John Thurston sent out a letter to Arkansas county clerks — the local elected officials responsible for maintaining voter records — advising them not to accept registration forms that had been filled out and signed electronically.

But county clerks have substantial authority of their own, and some, including Pulaski County Clerk Terri Hollingsworth, said they didn’t plan to follow Thurston’s advice.

A spokesperson for Hollingsworth said Monday afternoon that the office was still reviewing the draft rule from the state board and had no immediate comment.

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Here’s the full statement from Elliott of Get Loud:

Secretary of State John Thurston’s latest attempt to undermine our democracy through the state election commission is nothing short of a blatant power grab aimed at suppressing the fundamental right of every citizen to vote. This is not governance; this is tyrannical overreach cloaked in bureaucracy. We cannot, and we will not stand idly by while the fundamental pillars of our society are chiseled away by those who seek to disenfranchise the very electorate they are sworn to serve. I urge every citizen to stand against voter suppression, to ensure our voices are not just heard but are roaring with the collective power to safeguard our democracy.