Panel rejects bills on voter integrity unit, signature gatherers


LITTLE ROCK — A House committee on Friday rejected bills to create a Voter Integrity Unit within the secretary of state’s office and impose new restrictions on people who gather signatures for ballot initiatives.

Senate Bill 719 by Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, failed in the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee. The bill would create a four-person unit at the secretary of state’s office consisting of the director of the secretary of state’s elections division, the attorney for the secretary of state’s office, one employee of the elections division and one state capitol police officer.

The unit would investigate any complaint filed with the state Board of Election Commissioners alleging voter irregularities or fraud. The unit would have the authority to hold hearings, subpoena witnesses and present evidence. It would refer allegations to a prosecutor or the state police.

The committee endorsed the bill on Wednesday, but King took the measure back to the committee Friday so he could add an amendment deleting an exemption from the state Freedom of Information Act.

Susan Inman, a member of the state Board of Election Commissioners, testified that the board opposes the bill. She said complaints about possible election fraud are now investigated by the board, the members of which are appointed by various different elected officials.

“The power to investigate, used wrongly, is the power to intimidate voters and influence the outcome of elections,” she said. “That power now rests in the hands of a bipartisan board. Each political party has the ability under this structure to influence the policy to avoid abuse and watch over the shoulder of the other party when important policy decisions are being made.”

SB 719, Inman said, “transfers the power to investigate to a partisan elected official, giving that person unfettered authority to decide who, when and how to investigate individuals accused, often by their political rivals, of violating election laws.”

King disagreed, saying that the secretary of state — currently Republican Mark Martin — is elected by the people, not one political party, whereas the members of the Board of Election Commissioners are “partisan appointees.”

“Elected officials are not partisan,” King said.

The bill failed in a voice vote.

The committee also rejected, for the second time, SB 821 by Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, a bill that seeks to address signature-collection problems that occurred last year when 70 percent of signatures submitted to the secretary of state’s office in support of two ballot proposals were ruled invalid.

The bill would require a person who is paid to collect signatures for a ballot initiative to be registered with the secretary of state’s office and to undergo a training program established by the state Board of Election Commissioners. It also would require the county clerk or secretary of state to report fraudulent signatures to the local prosecutor and state police.

Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, called the measure “a bad bill.”

“Why is that we want to burden the process of petitioning?” he said.

“We should take every precaution to make sure that that (ballot initiative) process is adhered to, is transparent and is conducted properly,” said Rep. John T. Vines, D-Hot Springs, who presented the bill in the committee.

The bill received nine “yes” votes and four “no” votes. It needed 11 votes to clear the 20-member committee.

The panel gave a “do pass” recommendation to SB 992 by Sen. David Burnett, D-Osceola, which would prohibit a member of the state Game and Fish Commission, the state Highway Commission or the state Lottery Commission from seeking another civil office during his or her term on the commission. The bill goes to the House.