The security of various election changes -- vote-by-mail, automatic voter registration and voter ID -- separated the candidates for Arkansas secretary of state during a one-hour debate Wednesday.
Republican John Thurston, the state's current commissioner of state lands, said he supports requiring voters to provide photo identification before voting, and for security reasons he opposes automatically registering eligible voters and allowing the state's entire electorate to mail in their ballots.
Democrat Susan Inman said she believes that requiring identification before voting is unnecessary, but she promised to follow the will of Arkansans on the matter if she's elected.
Automatically registering Arkansans to vote when they get driver's licenses, or otherwise interact with other state administrative agencies, and allowing mail-in ballots for more than just absentee votes would save money and boost voter turnout, Inman said.
Inman, a former state elections director, said Thurston wasn't knowledgeable about elections and voting, noting that there are measures in place to ensure the security of mail-in ballots.
"I would remind him that this is how our military and service people vote when they're deployed in foreign lands protecting our country," she said, adding that voters who are out of state or disabled can also cast absentee ballots. "We should not have to have an excuse for anyone to vote by mail. It should be available to all of our citizens."
Thurston, who emphasized that he's the only candidate who has experience running a state constitutional office, said that in the 2016 presidential election, some absentee ballots were never returned and many were rejected because they arrived too late or the signatures didn't match.
"So I'm very hesitant to trust or to burden the Postal Service with the security of our elections," Thurston said. "The system or the model we currently have -- meaning voting machines, I'm not talking about a particular vendor -- is as secure as it gets."
The debate hosted by the Arkansas Educational Television Network was recorded Wednesday afternoon and aired at 9 p.m.
Libertarian Christopher Olson also joined Thurston and Inman in the debate.
The election is Nov. 6.
The secretary of state's office is responsible for overseeing the state's elections, for the security and upkeep of the state Capitol grounds and for providing a host of administrative services to businesses. The secretary of state, along with the governor and attorney general, also sits on the Board of Apportionment every 10 years to draw state legislative district boundaries.
The next board of apportionment will convene after the 2020 U.S. Census.
Thurston, who has been land commissioner since 2011, said he hopes to sit on that board and draw lines that make geographic sense and align with the 75 counties' justice of the peace districts.
Inman similarly said the lines should be nonpartisan and drawn to fit the needs of each community. Inman, who has monitored elections in Europe and Asia for the U.S. State Department, endorsed a movement across the country and state to do away with the Arkansas Board of Apportionment and similar entities, and instead create independent commissions comprised of appointees.
"I think it's incumbent upon us to do something like that," Inman said. "It takes away the potential for partisanship."
Thurston said creating an independent board isn't the solution, and he questioned whether the proposal arose because the next redistricting could be the first conducted by three Republicans in Arkansas.
"There's no such thing as an independent board or independent council," Thurston said. "Everyone on that board is appointed by someone, and I dare say is influenced by that someone who appoints that individual."
Thurston criticized Inman's proposal to automatically register eligible voters, saying Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton advocated for the same idea on a national scale. Coupled with mail-in ballots, Thurston said it could lead to voter fraud, particularly when people move.
"Why don't we just fly over the state and just throw ballots all over the place and let people send them back?" Thurston joked. "In my opinion, there's no way to chase everyone down where they live because in the commerce of life, people are always moving."
Inman said other states that allow voting by mail cooperate with the U.S. Postal Service to keep up with address changes.
Inman pounced on a panelist's question about spending by the land commissioner's office under Thurston for a boat and equipment of more than $28,000. The boat has been used four times since being purchased in 2014.
Inman has been critical of the purchase since it was reported by BlueHogReport.com, a left-leaning blog, last week. She said it was a poor decision.
"What are you going to buy if you're secretary of state?" Inman said. "I want to be a good steward of our monies and save millions of dollars for voters in Arkansas."
Thurston said he's never been on the boat nor has it been misused. He said it was purchased to help the office survey for debris in Arkansas' navigable waterways, which the office has jurisdiction over.
He noted that the land commissioner's office has returned $130 million to Arkansas' counties since 2011, and it has undergone eight clean audits.
He called Inman's attacks a "below-the-belt" smear by an opponent behind in the polls.
"I knew when we purchased the boat this moment could possibly come," Thurston said. "I knew it, but I have a responsibility. As an elected official, I took an oath and said that I would faithfully discharge the duties of commissioner of state lands. It's easy to armchair quarterback. ... It's easy to do that from the outside without knowing any of the history, any of the laws or any of the facts."
Olson, the Libertarian, said his focus if elected would be on protecting individual rights and expanding ballot access to independents and parties other than the Republican and Democratic parties.
The secretary of state serves a four-year term and is paid an annual salary of $94,554. The current secretary of state, Mark Martin, a Republican, is term-limited.
Metro on 10/11/2018
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