Today’s the day Arkansas Republicans begin moving a significant portion of their vote suppression agenda through the legislature.
A special order of business is set after adjournment in the Senate State Agencies committee on:
Bills to limit early voting; to prevent people from coming within 100 feet of a polling place for any reason except to stand in line (no water, in other words); to provide a means for easing the closing of neighborhood polling precincts by use of vote centers; to make it harder to inspect ballots for possible anomalies in handling the likes of mail absentees (a problem in 2020 with many ballots improperly ruled ineligible), and to allow the Republican-controlled state election commission to take over operation of local elections (particular target: Pulaski County).
Know this: None of this legislation is designed to increase voter participation. You will hear empty talk of election integrity following an election in which no hint of fraud was found.
UPDATE: The committee generally liked the legislation heard today. Indivisible Arkansas’s Loriee Evans was rudely treated for pointing out — correctly — that the bill prohibiting anyone from being with 100 feet of the entrance of a poll except for purpose of entering or leaving the building would make a crime of someone who walked up to someone standing outside in line with a bottle of water. Sen. Clarke Tucker said the bill was so broadly written it could be interpreted as applying to anyone, including a poll worker, standing outside. Sen. Trent Garner lectured Evans for having other political activities (not at polls) contrary to his own.
One exception: Republican opposition developed to dropping Monday early voting. Sens. Breanne Davis and Trent Garner said they wanted to keep Monday early voting, but Garner changed his mind because he didn’t like the groups speaking against the bill.
Vote suppression carried the day on three of four Sen. Kim Hammer’s bills. The bill to end Monday early voting failed because absent committee members left the bill short of the five needed to pass the bill from the committee. It received two no votes, from Davis and Tucker. The bill can be brought up again.
The fifth bill, to allow state takeover of local elections, was by Sen. Mark Johnson. It applies to larger counties. It is particularly aimed at Pulaski County where the Republican election commissioners sparred with Pulaski County election workers, who work for the county judge. Johnson recounted the blocking of a room by an election worker to Commission Chair Evelyn Gomez, as he’d been instructed to do, then she shoved him out of the way. Testimony was continuing into the early evening. His bill would provide a means to override local election workers or prevent them from working in an election. It’s effectively a way for the Pulaski County election commission to take over the operation of the Pulaski election staff, by asking for an order from the Republican-controlled state election commission. It could put a Republican state commission’s appointee in charge of the election.
Former Rep. Doug House, a Republican lawyer, said the bill is a way to resolve problems “in-house” without going to court. Pulaski Election Commission Chair Kristi Stahr renewed her complaint about county judge control of the Pulaski staff and a loss of access to the county building (a product of the pandemic order.) She told of the counting of 327 ballots counted after being declared ineligible (a mistake due in part to Evelyn Gomez’s decertifying of the election worker who oversaw the handling of that box before it was erroneously added back into the count — and some of the ballots, it developed were improperly ruled ineligible by the commission). She talked about a long meeting about missing ballots (they proved not to be missing). She mentioned a missing ballot box (it was an empty box left at a poll after the election.) She talked of outside groups “infiltration” elections, referring to groups that helped votes get their ballots counted — legally. She contended the legal advice given to the election commission by the county constituted a conflict of interest because he was a county employee.
Clarke Tucker began questioning by asking how a bill could order a county to spend money constitutionally under the direction of an unelected state commission. House contended court decisions allow it. Tucker also noted that the bill sets no standard for takeover, only that a partisan commission might be dissatisfied with the county judge. It’s a lot of discretionary power in the hands of two members of the election commission. Johnson and House said the bill was designed around an emergency, in a period of time around an election.
Lonoke County Judge Doug Erwin spoke against the bill on behalf of the county judges association. He is a Republican and he said all 75 county judges oppose the bill because it would create problems on the county level. It would incur expenses for county taxpayers with someone from the state calling the shots. He also said it was unfair for the bill to apply only to counties with 50,000 population or more. The standards should be the same for all. And he said bringing in the state in the final days of an election would cause problems. He also raised the constitutional power of the county judge to spend money.
Sen. Jason Rapert, the committee chair, wondered what could be done about situations as “egregious” as Pulaski County, a popular Republican talking point that overlooks the belief on the part of staff and others that the Republican commissioners were a major part of the problem in Pulaski election difficulties. They had a personality clash with long-time election director Bryan Poe, who resigned last week. They talk loosely, particularly Trent Garner, but there’s been no evidence of fraud or intentional misconduct in the election, though mistakes were made (and often are in a very complicated process. No election was stolen, which Mark Johnson said was the objective of his bill.
Melanie Winkler, the Cross County clerk, appeared to oppose the bill on behalf of the clerks association. She said the bill would create a hardship for clerks who handle the process and allow state takeover for personality conflicts.
A.J. Kelly, a Republican lawyer who challenged a Democrat’s narrow victory in a Pulaski County House race, said the bill was necessary to provide an emergency solution if ever needed. And he said it gave the Election Commission more control of the process at a critical time, which the Arkansas Supreme Court says properly rests there during election time.
Rapert declared the bill failed on the voice vote. The vote was expunged so it may be brought up again.
UPDATE: News release on today’s action from Indivisible Arkansas:
Early voting is increasingly popular with Arkansas voters, and has been law here since 1995. But a handful of politicians in the state legislature are sponsoring bills to create barriers to voting instead of focusing on pandemic relief. Today the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee voted 3-2 for a bill that would eliminate the Monday before Election Day as an early voting day. The bill required at least 5 votes to pass out of committee. Over 51,000 Arkansans chose to vote on the Monday before Election Day last November.
Democrat Senator Clarke Tucker said before the vote, “I received an email from a constituent who said that Monday was the only day she could vote. We need to be making it easier for people to vote, not harder.”
Another voter-related bill did pass out of committee: SB487 would shift decision-making on voting centers from the county clerks to party-controlled election commissions. With no accountability, partisan commissions could choose to continue the trend of closing neighborhood polling places.
SB486 also passed out of committee; it would make it a crime to get within 100 feet of a polling place, except to enter or leave the building. So for example, the bill would make it a crime to enter the area to offer a bottle of water to a voter standing in line.
“A consequence of a bill like SB486 will be to outlaw simple acts of charity by good Samaritans,” said Loriee Evans of Indivisible Little Rock and Central Arkansas. “Electioneering within 100 feet of a polling location is already illegal in Arkansas, and is strictly and effectively enforced by elections officials. SB486 adds more unneeded rules and regulations to laws that are already working well.”
See a list of voter related bills in the Arkansas 2021 legislature HERE.
Arkansas counties have been effectively and successfully running elections on the Monday before Election Day for 24 years, since early voting began in Arkansas. It’s unclear how SB485’s elimination of this popular voting day, with a decades-long record of efficiency, will actually improve elections. “Let’s please give our county clerks credit for the hard work they do to ensure early voting runs smoothly at the clerk’s office,” said voting rights advocate Susan Inman. “Our County Clerks want their registrants to vote. This early voting service has been in place and worked for over two decades, we see no reason to take it away now.”
In fact, additional logistical problems are likely to arise at the polls if such bills become law. For example, with regard to SB485, Indivisible volunteers were told by one staff member in a County’s Clerk’s office, that their small county has a limited number of voting machines available, so pushing so many more voters from Monday to Tuesday will cause long lines in their county on Election Day.
“SB485 is completely unnecessary, because every election commission can set its own days and hours for off-site early voting, and many of ours close on the second Friday,” said Benton County Clerk Betsy Harrell.
Early voting is popular for many Arkansans with full-time work or multiple job schedules. “Leaving it for Election day is not always a possibility for our Latinx community who generally work strict or long hours at poultry plants, construction sites, etc,” said Miriam Dominguez with Arkansas United, an immigration advocacy organization. “I can personally attest that my community does tend to vote last minute, which makes Saturday and Monday before election day our most crucial days.”
The vote for SB485 was expunged, meaning it can be brought back before the committee. SB486 and SB487 will next go to a vote in the full Senate.