House rejects bill to lop day of early voting

Backers cite worker fatigue;opposition sees suppression

Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, right, is shown in this file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

A bill that would have eliminated early voting in Arkansas on the last Monday before Election Day failed on the House floor Tuesday.

Senate Bill 485 by Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, failed three times in a Senate committee before it was signed out and taken to the Senate floor, then took two tries to advance from a House committee.

It failed in the House on a 43-39 vote, falling 12 votes short of the simply majority of 51 it needed to pass.

House sponsor Rep. Justin Gonzales, R-Okolona, and supporters of the bill said it would provide more time for poll workers to get ready for Election Day without having to work long hours that Monday.

Voting-rights organizations and lawmakers who opposed the bill equated it with voter suppression, and said election officials they'd spoken to didn't see a need for a change. More than 30 people rallied in the Capitol rotunda Tuesday morning and lined the steps to the House chamber, urging lawmakers to vote down the bill.

Arkansas has 13 days of early voting. If enacted, SB485 would have reduced that number to 12 and would have made the last Saturday before the election the final day of early voting.

Gonzales said poll workers need that final Monday to get ready for Election Day.

"It just gives poll workers a break before Election Day. If they're having to move machines on Election Day, get ready for the Tuesday vote, it's just a lot of stress on the poll workers," he said.

Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, questioned why it was determined that poll workers, who are paid and trained to work during early voting, needed a break after more than 20 years of working on that day. Arkansas has offered early voting on that day since 1995.

"My county clerk and two others are vehemently against this," she said. "From my understanding poll workers don't move machines, that definitely doesn't happen in my county. ... I don't know of any poll workers who work part time and get paid are asking for that break. It seems very arbitrary."

Gonzales said poll workers had requested the bill and had threatened to quit because of the long hours Monday night.

Rep. Monte Hodges, D-Blytheville, spoke against the bill, likening it to the Jim Crow laws of the 1800s.

"Why do we want to take away opportunities for citizens to vote? We've been voting on this Monday for 26 years, and it will be hard to make voters understand the changes," Hodges said. "We're trying to fix a problem that does not exist."

Rep. Karilyn Brown, R-Sherwood, spoke in support of SB485 and said the idea to remove final Monday early voting was proposed to her two sessions ago by some election officials.

"Having been a poll worker, I do know that there's a tremendous amount of work. They have to tabulate a lot of information, get machines working correctly," Brown said. "Arkansas has a very generous early voting policy."

Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, said closing rural polling places is voter suppression, but SB485 isn't. He said the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs had received a letter from the Prairie County clerk in support of the bill.

"People in rural counties, they cannot get poll workers. We need to make their job easier. This does that," Ladyman said.

Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, said, "Early voting is critical to our ability to hold smooth and efficient elections," and that the bill would provide no benefit to the vast majority of the state's election workers and voters.

Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, said it was "purely a staffing" issue, and that poll workers, whose average age is 65, say they can't keep up with a "potentially 20-hour day and turning it around on Election Day."

"This is a day that is merely meant to help our staff," he said, adding that problems in elections don't result from "nefarious intent" but from exhausted poll workers.

Rep. Jamie Scott, D-North Little Rock, said the bill would disproportionately impact minority communities and that the final Monday is one of the busiest days in her majority-minority district.

"This roadblock will affect hundreds of Arkansans, Republicans and Democrats," Scott said. "Please don't silence the voices of communities and people that look like me."

Twenty-three House Republicans joined the 20 present Democrats in the chamber in voting against SB485: Reps. Justin Boyd of Fort Smith, Joshua Bryant of Rogers, Craig Christiansen of Bald Knob, Cameron Cooper of Romance, Bruce Cozart of Hot Springs, Cindy Crawford of Fort Smith, Carol Dalby of Texarkana, Marsh Davis of Cherokee Village, Jim Dotson of Bentonville, Les Eaves of Searcy, Jimmy Gazaway of Paragould, Delia Haak of Gentry, Joe Jett of Success, Julie Mayberry of Hensley, Gayla McKenzie of Gravette, Clint Penzo of Springdale, Johnny Rye of Trumann, Dwight Tosh of Jonesboro, Kendon Underwood of Rogers, DeAnn Vaught of Horatio, Jeff Wardlaw of Hermitage, Les Warren of Hot Springs and Richard Womack of Arkadelphia.

Republicans Keith Brooks of Ferndale, John Carr of Rogers and Robin Lundstrum of Elm Springs voted present. Republicans Harlan Breaux of Holiday Island, Charlene Fite of Van Buren, Michelle Gray of Melbourne, Spencer Hawks of Conway, Lee Johnson of Greenwood, John Maddox of Mena, Rick McClure of Malvern, Austin McCollum of Bentonville, Jon Milligan of Lake City, Aaron Pilkington of Clarksville, David Tollett of Lexa, House Speaker Matthew Shepherd of El Dorado and Wing didn't vote.

Democrats Fred Allen of Little Rock and Deborah Ferguson of West Memphis were absent Tuesday.