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Arkansas election authority will investigate Phillips County reporting struggles

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Arkansas election authority will investigate Phillips County reporting struggles

Nov 23, 2022 | 5:56 pm ET
By Tess Vrbin, Arkansas Advocate
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Arkansas election authority will investigate Phillips County reporting struggles
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Phillips County (Arkansas) Courthouse (Getty Images)

Ongoing problems with tallying and reporting voting data led the Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners this week to agree to open an investigation into the Phillips County Election Commission.

The board unanimously agreed Tuesday to have director Daniel Shults file a complaint against the commission, which failed to upload the results of this month’s election to the Secretary of State’s website after two weeks.

The board will look into “all the observations that appear to indicate there was something incorrect” about the election process and “review all that has transpired in context after the election,” Shults said. After an investigation, the board can issue warnings, fines or other sanctions if it sees fit.

State law requires county officials to electronically send vote totals to the Secretary of State “immediately” after calculating the results. The responsibility belongs to the county election commissioners, the county clerk or an agreement between them.

Technological difficulties and tense working relationships among county officials have stood between Phillips County and adherence to state law, according to both Shults and Phillips County Election Commission chairman Wayne Boals.

Shults said he will formally file the complaint next week. Complaints must be filed no later than 30 days after an election commission certifies the county’s results. The 30-day clock started Wednesday, the 15th day after Election Day and the legally required deadline for certification of the results.

Phillips County certified the results Wednesday morning and sent the totals to the Secretary of State via the postal service. The results being postmarked on the deadline complies with the law, Shults said.

Secretary of State staff will manually upload the data to its elections website upon receiving it, government affairs director Kevin Niehaus said in a Wednesday email.

The Phillips County Election Commission had to duplicate several ballots that its voting machines could not read, including all 152 absentee ballots because the machines could not process the creases in the paper from being folded and mailed, Boals said.

An election monitor sent by the state Board of Election Commissioners helped count ballots, including duplicating the ones that needed it, until Nov. 10.

The state board also sent a monitor to Lee County, which borders Phillips County to the north, at a citizen’s request after some residents received incorrect or incomplete ballots when voting early or absentee, Shults said.

“The monitor did not observe anybody getting the wrong ballot, which is encouraging and indicates that whatever issues existed were corrected, at least at that time,” he said.

But Shults said he expects the state board to investigate Lee County as well, though the board has not yet voted on this.

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Lee County residents contacted Shults’ office during the primary election in May with concerns about a Facebook post from election commission chair Lindsey Palmer. The post, which has been deleted, appeared to promote Republican candidates, according to the complaint documents.

Palmer is a Republican, but county election commissioners are not supposed to publicly support any candidates. The Board of Election Commissioners sent Palmer a letter of warning about the Facebook post earlier this month. The board did not consider the post an explicit violation of decorum but felt it presented a “borderline” problem, Shults said.

On Monday, five local Lee County candidates filed a request for an injunction on the county’s election results, alleging misconduct by election officials.

Dexter Miller, the Democratic candidate for state House District 62, said Tuesday that he hopes to be included in the legal action as another “injured party.”

Miller lives in Phillips County, which usually elects Democrats, he said. He lost the House race to State Rep. Mark McElroy (R-Tillar), who lives in the Desha County portion of District 62 and had never run for office in Phillips or Lee counties before.

Phillips County conducted a recount of its District 62 results Monday at Miller’s request. He said last week that he was not certain the duplicated ballots were counted correctly and that the overall results did not sit right with him.

The recount cut McElroy’s district-wide lead from 218 to 212 votes but did not change the results.

Miller has now turned his attention to Lee County, where he also believes the votes were not counted properly and voters were “disenfranchised.”

“Hopefully after the holidays I’ll know if I can be a party to that injunction or not,” he said.