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Arkansas secretary of state candidates spar over voting rights, target incumbent’s record in debate

by Rachel Herzog | April 22, 2022 at 7:08 a.m.
FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this file photo.

Arkansas' four secretary of state candidates sparred over voting and redistricting while going after the incumbent's performance in a debate just under six weeks ahead of the primary election on Thursday.

Secretary of State John Thurston, a Republican from East End, faces a primary opponent is his reelection bid -- former state Sen. Eddie Joe Williams of Cabot. There are also two candidates in the Democratic primary, Josh Price of Maumelle and Anna Beth Gorman of North Little Rock.

The primary election is May 24, and early voting begins May 9. The winners of each party's primary will face off in the general election in November.

The Arkansas Press Association-hosted debate was one in a daylong event and was moderated by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Rex Nelson, who started by asking the candidates how they would dispel the idea that there's any cause for worry about the integrity of the state's elections. Following the 2020 presidential election, former President Donald Trump and his supporters made unproven claims of widespread voter fraud.

Price, a small business consultant and a former member of the Pulaski County Election Commission, said he is the only candidate with on-the-ground election experience and that he believes the answer is education and informing voters more about the process. He added that there was no fraud in Pulaski County and that it is important that elections are secure, but they also need to be accessible.

Gorman said the real fraud is Arkansas' low national rankings in voter turnout and registration. She said the way to restore confidence is by electing a leader with integrity who can act as a referee, and that the secretary of state's office needs to do a better job of understanding what each region needs. She added that Arkansas could have online voter registration, something Price said previously that he supports.

Williams said "a lot of questionable things" happened in Pulaski County during the 2020 election, and that the secretary of state should be on the job and equipped to investigate and hold someone responsible when things like that happen.

An investigation by the state Board of Election Commissioners found that 327 disqualified ballots were included in the total count in Pulaski County and that proper ballot security was not maintained.

Williams added that he would be a "cheerleader" in encouraging people to vote.

Thurston said Arkansas ranks high in election security according to the conservative Heritage Foundation and that a post-election audit found that every vote was counted accurately in the sample that was chosen.

He added later that Arkansas needs neither a cheerleader nor a referee, but a CEO, and that he is the only candidate with experience in the office.

Gorman, executive director of the Women's Foundation of Arkansas, said she is only candidate with statewide executive experience and that Arkansas' low voter turnout and difficulty of starting a business as a woman or minority are evidence that were Thurston a CEO, he would be fired.

Williams, a former regional transportation director for Union Pacific Railroad, also took a shot at Thurston's leadership.

"I know what it takes to keep the trains apart. I know what it takes to make sure the trains run on time," he said.

Price decried the state's closure of polling locations and said the officeholder needs to ensure that every Arkansan can exercise their right to vote.

"The secretary of state's office should be bending over backwards to make that happen," he said.

The candidates also shared varying stances on the state's recent redistricting and a proposed constitutional amendment to raise the threshold for initiated acts to 60% of the vote.

Redistricting describes the decennial process of redrawing the state's congressional and legislative district lines based on U.S. census data. In Arkansas, a board consisting of the governor, attorney general and secretary of state is responsible for legislative redistricting.

Whether the new House districts discriminate against Black voters is the subject of a federal lawsuit against the state.

Price said the new lines are gerrymandering and that he supports an independent, bipartisan committee doing redistricting. Gorman said she opposes anything that disenfranchises voters.

Thurston said there is no such thing as an independent committee and implementing one would distance the process from voters. The new maps create the state's first majority-Hispanic district, and Thurston said he is offended by allegations that the lines harm minorities. His late first wife was Black, he said.

The Legislature-sponsored amendment to increase the threshold for passing ballot measures to 60% from the simple majority required now will be on the ballot for Arkansans to approve or reject in November.

Gorman said it wouldn't be her job to weigh in on legislative matter but to act in a bipartisan manner and that she needs to get more information about it. She added later that she supports an individual's right to put something on the ballot.

Price said he does not support it, while Thurston and Williams said they do.

A point of common ground for the candidates was criticizing the secretary of state's website, which Thurston's challengers described as unintuitive, cumbersome and in need of updates.

Williams said the website was one of the reasons he decided to run.

"A website cannot be put up and left up for months without updates," he said. "We have to make business easy. It needs to be fixed. It is a fixable problem and I will fix it."

Price said he has a background in digital communications as a former public information officer and that the website needs a complete overhaul.

"We need to have a website that is easy for the average user," he said.

Gorman said the fact that Thurston has been in office nearly four years and not fixed the website is a failure.

"I actually know high school girls that can create a better website than the one that we have now. This is low-hanging fruit," she said.

Thurston said the issue is not the overall website, but the campaign finance reporting system for candidates and political action committees, which his office is in the process of seeking a new vendor to update.

He added that he feels everyone's frustration with the current system.

The Arkansas secretary of state's office oversees elections, maintains the state Capitol grounds and processes a number of services for businesses. The officeholder is paid $98,371 annually.

Print Headline: Secretary of state hopefuls face off


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