ALTERED FORM: Added question is in margin at upper right.

The League of Women Voters discovered an alteration to the state-approved voter registration form used by the Benton County clerk, and perhaps other counties. That has led to the withdrawal of the altered forms from circulation, at least in Benton County.

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The question, added to the margin of the voter registration form approved by the state election commission, asks registrants for their “state of birth.”

Arkansas birth is not necessary to vote and no law requires a voter to provide that information. You must be an Arkansas resident, of age and a U.S. citizen. Lynn Matthews of the League of Women Voters of Arkansas, who wrote me about the addition, sees the question as a voter suppression tactic. The fear is that it might scare naturalized citizens or perhaps legal citizens with family members who are not. Or perhaps just the uninformed.

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The added question was discovered by people doing voter registration work in Northwest Arkansas.

Matthews wrote me about an effort by voter registration volunteers to get answers about the added question, first spotted on forms distributed by the Rogers office of the Benton County government.

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The secretary of state’s office told Connie Hoffman that voter registration was the county clerk’s responsibility. According to Hoffman, she and others were told by the county clerk’s office that the question was “optional” (it doesn’t say so on the form) and “perfectly OK.” Repeat calls got similar answers from clerk employees.

Hoffman also called the state Election Commission, chaired by Secretary of State John Thurston. She reported being told that several counties had added this 12th question. Finally, she got a secretary of state employee to look into the question.

Daniel Shults, director of the state Election Commission, did not return my request  for an interview. (See update). My effort to get an interview with Thurston was also unsuccessful, but Chris Powell, who handles press inquiries for Thurston, did send this response to my questions:

The county put their own form out and was notified a few weeks ago by one of our election coordinators that they, by law, can’t make their own forms.

This morning, I got an e-mail response from Benton County Clerk Betsy Harrell about the altered forms. She included a message she’d sent to the secretary of state’s office Nov. 21 saying she’d stopped handing out the altered forms Nov. 15 after a complaint. She said some forms may still be in circulation but she’d be happy to replace them with unaltered forms. In that note, she offered this explanation for the question, an explanation she also gave to me in a separate note:

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The line was printed on the side margin several years ago when the field was added to the ES&S power profile system. [Electronic Systems and Software is a major vendor of election machinery and software for the state.] As I recall at the time, I think it was added as an additional characteristic that would help with avoiding duplicates? I wasn’t very involved with voter registration at that time. Adding it to the app was kind of cumbersome, so it wasn’t continued by most of the offices, except the one in Rogers.  No one was ever told it was required, and most of the time it wasn’t even noticed and left blank.

 

After I spoke with Ms. Allen on Friday, I directed the staff there to stop the practice since it was being interpreted as offensive, which could not be further from the truth. Neither I, nor any of my staff, would ever do anything to discourage anyone from taking part in the election process.

Harrell elaborated in the note to me:

All registrations received by our offices are processed. If we can get enough information to get anything into the database, we enter it, and if anything is missing (signature, incomplete address, such as a missing apartment number) the registrant is placed in a “suspense” status, and we then attempt to contact the registrant by mail to get the rest of the information. Which is sometimes futile if the address is the issue, but at least the person is in the system prior to any approaching registration deadlines. If anyone comes to vote who is in that suspense status, we simply get the missing information from them, complete the registration process and they vote. Being in suspense does not cause them to miss the registration deadline. At no time would leaving the state of birth blank have cause a person’s application to be considered incomplete, because as you mentioned, it is not required – just like gender or political party. The caller I spoke with several weeks ago just wanted us to add “optional” to the state of birth line, but I thought it best to just do away with it altogether.

Harrell added that, while talking about voter registration, she’d encourage a reminder of the Feb. 3 deadline to register to vote in the March primary. It is being held earlier than the usual May election date. Her office will be open until 7:30 p.m. Feb. 3 to handle late registration. Early voting will start Tuesday, Feb. 18, rather than a Monday, because Feb. 17 is a holiday.

Still unanswered is which, if any, other counties have added the question and whether an effort is being made by the state to get the word out to all counties.

Matthews said the League and ACLU are preparing a letter to the secretary of state and the state Election Commission because she fears the altered forms may still be in circulation.

UPDATE: Daniel Bryant at the Board of Election Commissioners provided this response:

The SBEC has received one question from a person in possession of the Voter Registration Application that includes a “State of Birth” field on November 21st.  We subsequently determined that this field had been added to one county’s applications by local officials.  The SBEC has not approved any such modifications to this application and we are assured that all applications in the county’s possession which have the added field have been destroyed.

 

The only other question we received was from a county election commissioner from another county who had become aware of this issue around the same time we did and wanted to know whether such a field should be on the applications.  He and the other officials present were informed that no such modifications were approved.

We are further assured by the county in question that any modified application submitted in the past was processed normally and the voter was registered, as required by law, regardless of what was included in this added field.  The SBEC has no information whatsoever that suggests otherwise.