Election commission votes on provisional runoff ballots

The Jefferson County Board of Election Commissioners on Thursday approved the counting of seven provisional ballots from the Tuesday, June 10, primary runoff election but only one of five absentee ballots previously designated as provisional.

Board minority party member Stu Soffer decried the need to discard any votes because of errors made by county clerk’s office staff.

“I have a big problem with having to disenfranchise a voter because the county clerk failed to write required information on an absentee ballot envelope,” Soffer said.

Board Chairman Ted Davis agreed that discarding votes is a distasteful process, citing the 175 absentee ballots that could not be counted in the May 20 primary election.

“Looking at all of the absentee ballots that were discarded after the May 20 primary election that had minor variations, I feel that we should have counted many of those votes,” Davis said.

Soffer added that some were discarded because of the lack of approved voter identification.

“We couldn’t do anything about those that did not have acceptable forms of voter identification,” Soffer said.

The Arkansas State Legislature voted in the spring of 2013 to require all voters to provide at least one of several forms of identification deemed acceptable. While the initial vote was vetoed by Gov. Mike Beebe, both the Arkansas Senate and House overrode the veto. This is the first election cycle in which the new voter ID laws have been in effect.

“The voter ID law in Arkansas is bad law,” Davis said. “It is disenfranchising our black voters and our poor voters. We can do absentee ballots better than this.”

Davis also took issue with the number of steps required of an absentee voter.

“As we go forward, we need to give real attention to the ballot process,” Davis said. “We have a higher threshold for absentee ballots than for those who vote at the polls. There is something wrong with that.”

Election Coordinator Will Fox said that four of the five provisional absentee ballots had to be discarded because of discrepancies that existed with them.

Fox added that he believed the fifth ballot should not have even made it from the county clerk’s office to the election commission for consideration.

“I don’t like it, but the law is clear that to be accepted, an absentee ballot that has been picked up and returned by an official bearer must be recorded in the bearer log and have the required bearer information written on the envelope by the county clerk’s office,” Fox said. “While all of the actual voting information in this case was correct, the bearer information was not. The State Supreme Court has made it pretty clear that they expect these laws to be followed to the letter.”

Soffer said that the law allowed the election commission to designate ballots as provisional in order to consider them for potential approval.

“If all of the voter information is correct and matches, then I think that ballot should be counted,” Soffer said.

Davis said he had a problem with the fact that the commission was going to approve this particular ballot after discarding a number of similar ballots after the May 20 primary election.

“We ran out of time on those,” Soffer said. “We figured out that we could deem these ballots as provisional too close to the deadline for certification. Otherwise we could have done the same thing then.”

Davis said the board needed to maintain consistency in the process.

“We are treating this accepted ballot today different from those rejected before,” Davis said. “I would like to make a motion to rescind the earlier vote accepting this ballot and instead discard it along with the four already rejected.”

Fox said that was impossible at that point because he had already acted on the commission’s vote.

“I have already removed the ballots from the envelopes, so there is no way now to know which ballot came from which voter,” Fox said. “I don’t know who they voted for.”