I happened to learn from watching the Pulaski County Election Commission Tuesday night that Secretary of State John Thurston had certified an erroneous popular name for Issue 1, the proposed constitutional amendment to impose a permanent half-cent sales tax increase for highway construction.
His office notified election commissions of the error 12 days later and asked that the popular name be corrected. In Pulaski County, this occurred after some 10,000 test ballots had been printed with the erroneous popular name. The Commission had to reprint them. Commission Chair Evelyn Gomez told the commissioners that Governor Hutchinson had told her that Thurston would pay for the cost of reprinting ballots. Curious that Hutchinson would be involved, because Thurston is an independent state official, in charge of elections.
Bryan Poe, director of the Election Commission staff, told the Commission that he’d been told the reimbursement only would cover test ballots printed before the email from Thurston’s office about the need for a correction. Printing continued in Pulaski County after receipt of the email while Poe sought legal advice on how he should respond to the email, as opposed to a formal declaration from the secretary of state.
Poe estimated Tuesday that the state would cover some $3,000 worth of the county’s cost of printing 10,000 test ballots, which are used to test machines on every possible marking combination of the more than 300 different ballots required to cover the various school, federal, local and state election districts,
I asked the secretary of state’s office for an explanation of what occurred and also asked the governor’s office how he came to be involved in the issue.
Chris Powell, a spokesman for Thurston acknowledged the error Thursday and said he assumed all counties would be using correct ballots (for both absentee and machine voting). He said he had no figure on the cost of any corrections because that was the responsibility of the counties. However, election vendor ES&S handles printing and machine programming for most of the rest of the state while Pulaski independently contracts. It’s unclear if printing in other counties had begun.
I’ve been promised a response on Hutchinson’s role by his communications director, Katie Beck, but haven’t received one yet.
Poe presented a notarized affidavit of what transpired to the Election Commission on Tuesday night.
It said he received the list of certified ballot measures from the secretary of state’s office on the afternoon of Aug. 20.
At 4:23 p.m. Sept. 1, he received an email from the secretary of state’s staff saying “there was a slight omission in the wording for Issue 1 concerning Sales and Use Tax.” The email provided a corrected popular name.
This is the language Thurston originally certified:
An Amendment to the Arkansas Constitution Continuing a One-Half Percent (0.5%) Sales and Use Tax for State Highways and Bridges; County Roads, Bridges and Other Surface Transportation After the Retirement of the Bonds Authorized in Arkansas Constitution, Amendment 91
This is the correct language, with the omission highlighted:
An Amendment to the Arkansas Constitution to continue a levy of a one-half percent sales and use tax for state highways and bridges; county roads, bridges, and other surface transportation; and city streets, bridges, and other surface transportation after the retirement of the bonds authorized in Arkansas Constitution, Amendment 91, as special revenue to be distributed under the Arkansas Highway Revenue Distribution Law.
As presented, the popular name voters would have seen originally didn’t include the 15 percent of roughly $300 million in annual new tax revenue that would be provided for cities. Cities wouldn’t see that as a slight omission.
Poe wrote the secretary of state’s liaison on Sept. 4 saying he’d been advised by the county attorney to ask if the county would be notified by affidavit of the ballot error as provided in state statute. He said he was told Sept. 5 by Leslie Bellamy, director of elections, that an affidavit would not be issued and the email was sufficient notice.
The Pulaski commission discussed the circumstances at some length Tuesday, during which Gomez mentioned that she’d been informed by the governor that costs could be covered by Thurston. He won’t cover the absentee ballot printing that had already begun between Sept. 1 and 4. Some 65,000 are to be printed so time is important in getting ballots in hands of voters as soon as possible, particularly given Trump administration-induced U.S. mail problems.
Were absentee ballots printed for other counties based on the original certification? Powell’s limited response seems to indicate this didn’t occur. He also didn’t directly confirm the representation by Gomez that Thurston will pay some of Pulaski County’s costs.
The Pulaski County Election Commission meets again tonight at 8:30 p.m. and will discuss the general election ballot. A question lingering is whether the Pulaski ballot should continue to include two ballot questions — on redistricting and primary elections — that the Arkansas Supreme Court said didn’t meet certification rules and shouldn’t be counted. Thurston hasn’t issued formal guidance to remove those items from ballots because a federal lawsuit continues to challenge Thurston’s refusal to certify them.
It’s also possible that commissioners may discuss further another item of recent controversy, the Arkansas Republican Party’s questions about County Clerk Terri Hollingsworth’s handling of absentee ballot applications. Hollingsworth, a Democrat, has said the law is being followed in checking voter signatures on file against applications.
Hollingsworth has received queries from Election Commissioner Kristi Stahr, two members of the Pulaski County Republican Committee and from Republican Party Chair Doyle Webb, who said he’d received unspecified allegations of mishandling of applications. Hollingsworth said she viewed this as part of Republican Party vote suppression efforts in heavily Democratic Pulaski County. Republicans have received under FOI all applications for absentee ballots with apparent plans to compare them against the electronic voter files. It sounds like a challenge is in the offing for the expected surge of absentee ballots. On election day, signatures on ballots are compared with signatures on applications for ballots before counting.
If I know the Republican Party, I can guess some of the neighborhoods of voters that will be targeted for challenges.
With help from the U.S. Supreme Court, past restrictions on voter intimidation squads have been lifted and the Republican Party nationally is expected to move aggressively to reinstitute these practices in Democratic strongholds like Pulaski. Why bother in blood-red Arkansas? Because they can.