Battle of Pine Bluff: Ballot Error Sets Off Partisan Skirmish

[Image via flickr user courthouselover]

A ballot error in Jefferson County, Arkansas (Pine Bluff) has triggered a partisan fight, with Democrats calling for the county election commissioner to resign and he, in turn, responding that they want to “steal elections.” NWAOnline has more:

The Democratic Party of Arkansas is calling for a Jefferson County Election commissioner to resign after an error caused 152 people in four Pine Bluff precincts voting early in a Democratic Primary to cast ballots in the wrong race.

The ballot error, which an unidentified voter spotted Thursday morning, prompted Jefferson County Clerk Shandra Taggart to notify the Jefferson County Election Commission and to have early voters in those precincts begin voting on paper ballots left over from absentee balloting, with the Senate District 25 race marked out and the Senate District 27 race included as an attachment.

Voters in precincts 221, 222, 223 and 224 in Pine Bluff were supposed to receive ballots with the Senate District 27 race between Pine Bluff attorney Keidra Burrell and former Rep. Garry Smith of Camden. Instead, they received ballots with the District 25 race between incumbent Sen. Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff and former Rep. Effrem Elliott of White Hall.

That error has started a partisan free-for-all over the future of the county election commissioner – which the state’s governor has declined to join:

The ballot incident has set off a firestorm of accusations, counter-accusations, and calls for the State Board of Elections to send a monitor to Jefferson County on Tuesday’s Election Day. The state Democratic Party issued a news release Friday accusing Jefferson County Election Commissioner Stuart “Stu” Soffer, a Republican, of trying to suppress votes. Soffer, in turn, accused the Jefferson County Democratic Committee of trying to force him out in order to steal elections.

“This could have been prevented,” said Michael John Gray, state Democratic Party chairman, in the news release. “Stu Soffer, who has admitted fault, should do the right thing and resign immediately. I fully expect Gov. Asa Hutchinson and GOP Chair Doyle Webb to call on him to resign as well.”

Hutchinson declined Friday to involve the governor’s office in the matter.

“In Arkansas, our local election commissions handle their local races,” Hutchinson said. “This is a matter that should be corrected and dealt with at the local level to ensure everyone’s right to vote.”

The blow-up was accompanied by rhetoric which is becoming all-too-familiar:

Gray accused Soffer of pursuing “an agenda of systemic voter suppression and the denial of African-American’s full participation in the local voting process.”

On Friday, Soffer denied any effort to suppress voter participation and said he has no intention of resigning. Then he leveled an accusation of his own.

“The Democratic Party of Arkansas,” he said, “through their surrogates, have been trying to get me off the Election Commission for several years because I stand between them and stealing elections in Jefferson County. Instead of sweeping this under the rug as has been done in past years when the Democrats were in control in Jefferson County, we opted for full disclosure in a public meeting.”

Soffer called the accusations against him ridiculous.

“Stop and think about what they’re saying. It’s a race between two Democrats,” he said. “I don’t have a dog in that fight.”

Meanwhile, the Commission has been working through how to handle the error:

The Election Commission met Thursday evening in a tense, hour-long meeting, with angry candidates, elected officials, and others demanding to know what happened and how the commissioners intended to remedy the situation.

Initially, they were told by Michael Adam, Election Commission chairman, the miscast votes would have to be counted as they were cast, which didn’t sit well with most of the 25 or so people at the meeting.

Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, who’s running unopposed for re-election, voiced concern the voters whose votes were miscast could wind up losing their vote in that race.

Daniel Shults, director of the State Board of Election Commissioners, said Friday the votes mistakenly cast in the District 25 Senate race can be isolated and simply not counted.

“As I understand it, I don’t believe there will be any negative effects in — I believe it’s District 25 — the one where they voted in that the shouldn’t have,” Shults said. “That half of the problem is quite easy to fix but the other half is quite difficult, which is why you want to not have this problem.”

Soffer said Friday the commission will meet Monday at the Jefferson County Election Commission office in Pine Bluff.

He said the commission will decide whether to delete the 152 votes miscast in the District 25 Senate race, to approve logic and accuracy testing on the machines used for the four precincts with ballot errors, to decide on accepting supplemental ballots for the District 27 race mailed to absentee ballot voters in the four precincts, and to request an election monitor to observe on Election Day.

State election officials will also be meeting to discuss a request for election monitors in Jefferson County:

The same day, the State Board of Election Commissioners has scheduled a meeting to consideration of pending election monitor requests, even though the board hadn’t received any requests by Friday.

“I don’t know that we’ve technically received the request yet but I’m under the impression that we will by close of business, so we wanted to go ahead and schedule the meeting to accommodate any requests that are made,” he said. “I’ve heard that several folks are [going to request an election monitor].”

Adam emailed a request at 6:30 p.m. Friday to the State Board asking for an election monitor.

“The Jefferson Board of Election Commissioners would like an election monitor during the vote canvas starting at 6:30PM Tuesday March 3, 2020. This is an unofficial request as I am asking as a commissioner but I believe the request will be approved in Monday’s meeting at 1:30PM by the Commission,” the email read.

Observers do note that ballot errors like these have occurred before in Arkansas:

Although not common, ballot errors do occur, especially in elections with multiple races and precincts that overlap, [the State Commission’s] Shults said.

“I wouldn’t say it happens often but in Arkansas, we elect a lot of offices,” Shults said. “That creates a lot of unique combinations of issues and ballots. Obviously, the more complexity there is, the more versions of ballot there are, the more detail that has to be correct to the setup. It’s not unheard of.”

A ballot error was discovered Friday in a Fayetteville School Board race when two precincts were accidentally switched and the School Board race was placed in the wrong precinct. According to Jennifer Price, election director, the error was spotted by a voter and corrected when it was pointed out…

In Phillips County in 2018, Phillips County voters reported they cast the wrong ballots in the Marvell mayoral election Tuesday because ballots for people inside and outside the city limits were mixed up.

In the highly contested race for mayor, rural voters received city ballots and city voters got county ballots. The county ballots didn’t include candidates for mayor.

Shults said any voter who believes they may have been given the wrong ballot, or an incorrect ballot, should speak up.

“Every voter has the right to vote any ballot in the county they want to,” he said. “Now, they’ll vote it provisionally if it’s not the one assigned. If they don’t think their ballot is right they should check it, they should speak up and be sure they’re given the ballot they believe is correct. They can vote provisionally and then make their case to the commission.”

This situation is just the latest from around the country involving voters who live near precinct or district boundary lines, which can make assigning ballots to them difficult and result in errors. It’s one reason why many jurisdictions are conducting “geographic audits” of their voter lists to catch and resolve problems before they occur. If nothing else, such efforts would head off the fierce partisan rhetoric that inevitably seems to accompany problems like these. Stay tuned …

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