ELECTION COMMISSION: At work Monday night.

UPDATE: The Pulaski County Election Commission staff today counted absentee ballots that could affect two close state legislative races, but not before a lot of Republican complaining, election commisson/staff wrangling and arrival of a police officer to talk to Evelyn Gomez, the chair of the commission, over her admission last week she had pushed a staff member.

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I’ll just take it from the top as I started this morning, with multiple updates down the way. There is, as yet, no bottom line on final vote tallies.

The Arkansas Republican Party has stepped in again with objections to vote-counting by the Pulaski County Election Commission, apparently fearful that some 1,600 uncounted absentee ballots might help two Democratic candidates trailing narrowly in two Little Rock state House of Representatives races.

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Last night, the Election Commission completed a review of roughly 2,000 absentee ballots checked earlier to see if either a voter ID or sworn signature was included. In 1,602 cases, there was no ID, but the optional verification identity statement was signed, Election Commissioner Joshua Price said.

Another 206 absentee ballots missing both elements were cured by people who took an ID to the county clerk’s office by noon Monday. Four absentee ballots delivered by designated bearer also were approved.

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So 1,812 absentee ballots are now being counted. In the course of a spot check review of the absentees at a four-hour meeting of the Election Commission last night, about 1 percent of the absentee ballots previously approved were found to be missing both the signature and ID.

On the strength of that, Arkansas Republican Party Chair Doyle Webb sent a letter to election commissioners this morning:

This concerns the “opening and processing” of provisional ballots today.  Yesterday, the Commission “spot checked” ballots in the “do count” pile and found a one percent error rate on signature lines (missing or incorrect signatures), but decided to process the remaining ballots this morning.  Please SEGREGATE OUT ALL BALLOTS FROM HOUSE DISTRICT 32 AND HOUSE DISTRICT 38 (Sorvillo v Hudson and Wing v Stallings), and do not process those ballots today.

 

Candidates want the opportunity to review each ballot/envelope separately, and ask the commission to do that, before processing any of them.

It’s unclear what happens next. The Commission is not in session and has no called meeting. It can’t meet legally without two hours’ notice. It’s possible the ballots will be counted and added to the unofficial totals in the interim. If counted, Doyle Webb might find no reason for concern. CORRECTION: I’m informed that the ballots, once counted, can’t be separated for view.

They are votes in House District 32, where Republican Rep. Jim Sorvillo is currently leading Democrat Ashley Hudson by 66 votes and District 38, where Republican Rep. Carlton Wing is leading Democrat Matthew Stallings by 81 votes. In both races, the Democrats easily led in absentee voting but trailed in in-person votes.

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No one knows how many of the absentee ballots being counted today were cast in the respective districts.  It is also unclear whether what Webb is requesting could compromise the secrecy of individual ballots.

The absentee ballots are not the only remaining votes at issue. The county clerk’s office is still reviewing roughly 2,700 provisional ballots cast in-person. They are people for whom poll workers could find no registration in the electronic poll books. The clerk so far has reported disallowing about 1,100 of those ballots as being turned in by people not on the main voter rolls. About 1,1000 were found to be votes of registered voters. Another roughly 300 are still under review and the clerk has asked until Friday to submit the final list of votes that should be counted. That’s the day the commission is to meet to certify election results, including any overseas or military ballots that should turn up this week. Only a few dozen are outstanding.

This is the second time the Republican Party has intervened in the Pulaski process. There’s been long-simmering unhappiness between Election Commission Chair Evelyn Gomez and Commissioner Kristi Stahr, both Republicans, and the three-member commission’s staff, which operates under the authority of Democratic County Judge Barry Hyde. Both Republicans complained about their treatment at a meeting Friday and the commission acted on a demand letter from Webb, prompted by remarks commission deputy director Shawn Camp reportedly made to an election worker not to talk with the commissioners. Webb said Camp should be de-certified to work in the election. To compromise the dispute, Camp was directed not to work the remainder of this election with ballots that had already been open. Some of the dispute apparently has personal roots. Stahr once worked in the county clerk’s office with Camp and ill feelings linger.

Two other things worthy of note:

Only three people are certified as election training workers in Pulaski County, according to records of the state Board of Election Commissioners — Price, Camp and staff Director Bryan Poe. Gomez and Stahr did not take the training courses available to all commissioners in 2021 to attain certification.

EVELYN GOMEZ: She’s said she pushed an election staff employee.

Also, at Friday night’s meeting after the discussion on Camp and continued unhappiness on the part of the Republican commissioners that they don’t have keys to the county building, Gomez said, as best I can tell from a YouTube video with poor sound quality:  “Last time I actually had to literally push Mr. Camp out of the way to be allowed admittance into the office.”

Poe responded: “You pushed Mr. Camp?”

Gomez: “I … Yes I did. He barred [unintelligible] and I went inside.”

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UPDATE: Gomez, a hyper-partisan, has rallied to Doyle Webb’s cause.

She wrote Bryan Poe, the staff director, and the other commissioners, apparently objecting to a request for legal advice from the county attorney, Adam Fogleman. She ordered Poe to  “hault” [sic] processing absentee ballots. She said she would call an emergency meeting and he should do nothing further until then.

Let me clarify the law for Gomez, a lawyer who reportedly demands to be addressed as judge as a state administrative hearing officer and who complained at last Friday’s meeting about lack of a gavel to maintain order.

She cannot tell Bryan Poe to whom he may speak or not speak. He works for the county. He may ask the county attorney for advice.

She may not unilaterally order him to stop processing ballots, as directed to do by the Election Commission previously. The Commission cannot meet without two hours’ notice. It can’t order Poe to do anything without taking a vote of the commission. Two of the three votes are necessary for action.

Furthermore, the only reason to stop processing the ballots is for cosmetic reasons. Once counted, the votes are not certified. If the Commission decides to take the unprecedented step of a ballot-by-ballot review of every ballot cast absentee in two races for state legislature it is doing so because Republicans are looking for a way to disallow Democratic votes. But it must attempt to do so by the democratic process, not dictate from Evelyn Gomez.

As of yet, no meeting has been set. As yet, the ballot processing continues.

UPDATE II: I have FOI’ed commissioner emails and it would appear a meeting has been set at 5 p.m. Thursday to discuss this issue and review the provisional ballots from the clerk’s office. Stahr has expressed some concern (well-placed) that the commission may have a hard time doing these matters in time for the Friday certification deadline. It would be unusual for this commission to do anything quickly, particularly with Doyle Webb in the wings attempting to block Democratic-leaning ballots. He hasn’t asked to review ballots in other races.

Gomez has reiterated an order to Poe to stop processing ballots, by what authority is unclear. The processing apparently continues.

ABSENTEE VOTES BEING COUNTED: This is Tuesday afternoon at 1:20 p.m.

UPDATE III: The Republicans are desperately trying to stop the vote counting. Gomez tried to call a meeting without legally required two-hour notice. So far, no meeting has been called. I’ve informed the Commission any action taken at an illegal meeting will be challenged. The meeting, if held at all today, will be held without the only Democratic commissioner, Joshua Price, who said his job prevents him from being available until 8 p.m.

As explained to me now, I understand all absentee ballots have been removed from the secrecy envelopes and stacked for counting by the counting machine. That process is underway and should be completed shortly. It is no longer possible to compare any of those ballots with accompanying voter statements.

With any luck, democracy, and not rank partisanship, will prevail and these votes will be counted. Then we can await Webb skulduggery on the remaining provisional ballots. But unless he segregates only ballots cast by Democrats, he might risk screwing things up because in-person voting favored his candidates.

Some of the e-mail that illustrates commission desperation, and disregard for the law:

 

UPDATE IV: A 4 p.m. meeting of the commission was announced shortly before 2 p.m.

But around 3 p.m., Commisioner Price told me that meeting had been canceled.

That development is perhaps related to fact that 1) all the absentees have been opened and many counted (though numbers aren’t yet known and several hundred coudn’t be scanned so must be remade for re-scanning)) and 2) a police officer arrived to talk to Gomez when she went commission offices this afternoon. It’s believed to be related to the incident I reported earlier, in which she said in a commission meeting she had pushed a staff member, Shawn Camp, that she wanted removed from election duties for telling an election worker not to talk to the election commissioners. But that is only speculation. The prosecuting attorney said no complaint had been filed with his office, but he was monitoring the unfolding situation. Camp’s complaint according to a poll watcher, is not only that Camp pushed him but her actions have interfered with his ability to perform election duties.

 

Hard to say what’s next. Gomez is reportedly still at commission offices with state Rep. Doug House, a Republican lawyer. No official word yet if absentees counted today will be added to unofficial totals. Wednesday is a holiday for government employees, so the next big action will be Thursday.