Second letter puts onus on clerks to fix voter rolls

County clerks should have conducted independent investigations before removing people from voter rolls, because flawed data provided by the secretary of state's office in conjunction with the Arkansas Crime Information Center was "not completely accurate," the office said in a letter to clerks sent this week.

"We believe you should only deem a voter ineligible if you independently confirm the voter has been convicted of a felony and has not had voting eligibility restored under Amendment 51 through pardon or discharge of a sentence," Kelly Boyd, chief deputy secretary of state, said in the letter, given to a reporter Thursday. "This is the best way to ensure no eligible voter is accidentally disenfranchised."

But Pulaski County Clerk Larry Crane said the letter came too late.

"Yes, this letter is stronger than the one before," he said, referring to earlier correspondence from the secretary of state's office. "Well, excuse me, it's been a month and a half since they did it. You have clerks who have sent letters out to people -- to felons, to nonfelons. You have clerks who have devoted many, many, many hours to working through this process. I'm sorry, that is not a good response."

In June, the secretary of state's office notified county clerks that it had updated the statewide voter database by flagging 7,730 registered voters the Arkansas Crime Information Center said were convicted of felonies. It was the first update in nearly two years.

The data previously had been generated by Arkansas Community Correction, but when the employee who normally processed the data died, updates lapsed in 2014. After reading Amendment 51 to the Arkansas Constitution, Secretary of State Mark Martin's office determined in 2015 that it should request the information from the Arkansas Crime Information Center.

Martin's office received the complete database of people convicted of felonies -- which contained 193,549 names -- and merged the information into the statewide voter registration system in June. About 1.7 million people are registered to vote in Arkansas. The general election, which will decide the next president, is Nov. 8. The deadline to register to vote in that election is Oct. 10.

Brad Cazort, repository administrator for the Arkansas Crime Information Center, said the agency is working to fix flaws in the felon database. About 4,000 of those records sent to Martin's office stem from municipal court convictions, which cannot result in a felony.

"We're close to having that corrected," Cazort said. "If it's not already corrected, it's close to being corrected."

The center also did not provide the names of those who had been pardoned, Cazort said.

"That has now been resolved now, too," he said.

But regardless of those fixes, "the one thing that's never going to get resolved on our end is what felons have gotten those voting rights restored because we don't get that information," Cazort said.

Martin's office requested the Arkansas Crime Information Center's entire felon database -- which contains records going back to the 1970s -- but over the past 40 years, many felons have had their voting rights restored.

Arkansas law allows felons to regain the right to vote once they are discharged from probation or parole, have paid all probation or parole fees and have satisfied all terms of imprisonment and paid all court costs, fines or restitution. A felon also can have his crime pardoned and become eligible to vote again.

Amendment 51 to the Arkansas Constitution states that when convicted felons show proof of that information to the county clerk, they shall be added back to voter registries.

The update did not note whether a felon had gone through that process. The Arkansas Crime Information Center does not possess that data, Cazort said.

Chris Powell, a spokesman for Martin, provided the letter, dated Tuesday and sent Wednesday, to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, but did not respond to an interview request or emailed questions.

A receptionist said Martin was not available for an interview when a reporter visited his office.

In the letter, Boyd "strongly recommended" that clerks who did not consult their records "to make independent determinations regarding voter eligibility prior to making deletions from the voter rolls" ask the secretary of state's office to roll back their data to undo those decisions.

Though county clerks ultimately make the decisions about who can vote, the statewide database is maintained by the secretary of state's office.

Boyd wrote that because "the Secretary of State's office lacks the legal authority to change your voter registration rolls, we need each Clerk to notify us in writing as soon as possible if you wish to arrange for the roll-back of felon removals."

Crane took issue with that. He said the secretary of state's office should take back the flawed data.

"I recommended that the secretary of state unilaterally go back and I believe the secretary of state has the authority. There is nothing in the constitution that forces the secretary of state to give out inaccurate data, flawed data, data that shows that people totally innocent of anything are felons."

The secretary of state's office distributes the felon update list as flags in the statewide voter registration database. If the office can add those flags to the database without first asking permission from clerks, the office should be able to remove them, he said.

Boyd wrote that if clerks have not yet made any deletions based on the flags added to the database on June 27, "we strongly recommend that you wait to do so unless and until more accurate information is available."

Counties that are independently confirming the data "based on their own records should continue to do so," Boyd said.

He repeated wording -- first sent July 6 from the secretary of state's office -- that felons who have gone through the process of having their voting rights restored "do not need to file this paperwork again."

Clerks in five counties -- Pulaski, Benton, Drew, Baxter and Independence -- asked the secretary of state to reset their records.

Clerks in other counties -- such as in Saline and Craighead -- did not ask for the database reset, but said they would independently confirm each person's information before removing them from voter rolls.

On Thursday, Boyd's letter had not yet reached Lonoke County Clerk Dawn Porterfield's office when she was reached by phone.

If instructed, Porterfield said she would seek to reverse the list of names removed from her voter rolls.

"That's probably what I'm going to do until they can fix this, because it's not fair to a lot of folks," Porterfield said, adding, "We're still getting a lot of phone calls."

Of the 155 names flagged among Lonoke County voters, Porterfield could not say how many her staff had removed.

Staff members stopped removing the names several days after they were flagged because of the controversy, and since then the employees have been working to determine who still belongs on the rolls, she said.

Greene County Clerk Phyllis Rhynes said her office already was reviewing the 40 names she received, and the office was not planning to change its course of action after receiving Martin's letter.

Rhynes said her office sent letters to those who were flagged, but did not immediately begin removing them from the rolls.

She could not say how many had been removed, but gave assurances that any wrongly flagged voters who showed up to the polls could vote provisionally.

Crane said his employees were continuing to investigate the nearly 2,000 names flagged in Pulaski County.

"I am confident that we will have at least 400 hours and maybe 500 employee hours to clean up the mess that Mark Martin and his staff laid at our feet," he said. "I can't get anything back for that."

A Section on 08/12/2016

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