Voters sue over lack of Garland County polling sites

— A Hot Springs attorney representing three Garland County voters has filed a lawsuit against the county’s Election Commission, claiming it violated the law when it opened only two polling places for Tuesday’s runoff election.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in Garland County Circuit Court seeks to nullify and not certify the county’s election results.

The commission held elections at its customary 36 polling places during the May 18 primary but opted to open only two - at the Election Commission’s office in Hot Springs and at a site in Hot Springs Village - for Tuesday’s runoff election. The county, anticipating light turnout, made plans in March to open only the two sites to save money.

The plan prompted earlier criticism from Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who was in a runoff against U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, and Pulaski County Clerk Pat O’Brien, who was in a runoff for secretary of state against Mark Wilcox.

Attorney Ben Hooten said in the lawsuit that the changing of polling places was done intentionally to “ disenfranchise minority, elderly, poor and the disabled voters of Garland County.

“The actions of the defendants render the results of this election doubtful,” the lawsuit said.

Garland County Election Commission Chairman Charles Tapp said Tuesday evening that he was not aware Hooten had filed the action.

“I’ve not received anything in writing,” Tapp said. “I heard people talking about it, but I don’t know if he’s actually done it. I won’t comment until I see it.”

Hooten said in the lawsuit that under state law election commissions can’t change polling places within 30 days of an election. He added that the defendants failed to list polling places on an Arkansas secretary of state website.

The three Garland County voters are Blake Robertson, Doug Jones and Ted Burhenn.

Garland County’s Election Commission has been sued before.

In 2008, four residents challenged the results of a special election in which voters authorized borrowing money for repairs at the Mid-America Science Museum in Hot Springs because only one polling place was opened for the vote. A special judge dismissed the challenge, saying there was no evidence of “fraud, chicanery or a deliberate attempt to deprive anyone of their right to vote.”

Despite the reduced number of polling places on Tuesday, voting went smoothly, election commissioners said.

Some voters had to wait up to 15 minutes at the main polling site on Ouachita Avenue in Hot Springs. At the second site on Arkansas 7 near Hot Springs Village, voters at times had to wait behind six or seven people, election commissioners said. But everyone was inside, in air conditioning, they said.

“This has been a good day,” Tapp said, though he complained about what he referred to as Halter’s “obnoxious” campaign workers or volunteers who he said were trying to “generate some problems.”

Tapp said the workers were “immature” and they repeatedly asked poll workers for election results during the day.

The Halter campaign did not respond to a message left with a spokesman seeking comment.

By early afternoon, Tapp estimated that just 4,000 of the county’s 70,563 registered voters would cast ballots.

Bowing to pressure from the Halter campaign last week, Tapp planned to extend early voting through Saturday but was forced to halt those plans when he learned it would be illegal. Hehad told The Sentinel-Record of Hot Springs the mistake might prompt him to resign after 18 years on the commission. On Tuesday, however, he said he had no plans to quit.

Around the state, some counties with local runoffs reported heavy turnout and routine election-day slip-ups, such as initial trouble getting election machines up and running, while other counties reported few voters and no problems.

At one polling site in Conway, election officials outnumbered voters shortly after 11 a.m., when many prospective voters are starting lunch breaks.

In Union County, where there were runoffs for El Dorado mayor and sheriff on top of the statewide races, the county clerk said turnout appeared strong.

“We’re having phenomenal turnout,” said County Clerk Shannon Phillips.

Lawrence County deputy clerks said nearly as many people who voted in the primary election cast ballots in the runoff election. The county had runoffs for both the county judge and sheriff.

Drew County Election Commissioner Bobby Hood said turnout was higher than expected, likely because of the state District 10 House of Representatives runoff between Ross Bolding and Sheilla Lampkin, both Monticello Democrats.

Information for this article was contributed by Mike Linn and Debra Hale-Shelton of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Arkansas, Pages 11 on 06/09/2010

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