A judge on Friday declined to grant relief in U.S. Senate candidate Jake Bequette's suit over an error that misidentified him as "Jack" Bequette on ballots in two Arkansas counties but allowed the case to remain open.
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Mackie Pierce said it was troubling the misspelling on ballots in Craighead and Phillips counties was not corrected before early voting in the primary began Monday, but given that Craighead County corrected the error Thursday and Phillips County was working to correct it, he considered the issue moot.
"I don't know what else this court could offer other than what's been done," Pierce said.
Pierce said he was not willing to send notice of the error to voters who received absentee ballots, as Bequette's attorney Scott Poynter had requested, because he said that could result in further confusion.
Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston, the state Board of Election Commissioners and the election commissions in both counties are the defendants in the suit.
Pierce declined to grant a motion from Assistant Attorney General Kesia Morrison to dismiss the case on the basis that some of the defendants had not been properly served.
Bequette, a veteran and former Arkansas Razorback football player, is one of three candidates seeking to oust incumbent U.S. Sen. John Boozman in the Republican primary May 24, along with Heath Loftis and Jan Morgan.
According to election officials, the misspelling of Bequette's name resulted from a proofreading error during the ballot preparation process at the county level. Counties receive a certified list of candidates from the secretary of state's office, then enter it into an electronic portal coded by the state's election vendor.
Thurston's office became aware of the error in Craighead County on April 28 and in Phillips County on May 6 and notified the counties on those days, according to spokesman Kevin Niehaus.
In Friday's hearing, Poynter said Bequette's campaign found out about the error through phone calls from voters after early voting began.
"There's clearly voter confusion going on and that's really unfortunate," he said. "All the work and all the money that we spent on getting Mr. Bequette -- Jake Bequette's name -- out there, it's not being used properly."
Morrison said absentee ballot recipients being notified of the correction, as Poynter requested, is not required by statute.
"I think the fact that the state has been helping indicates that an order is not necessary," she said, adding later that the secretary of state's office had verified that Bequette's name was correct on ballots in the other 73 counties.
Pierce said he couldn't make a decision without testimony to voter confusion. Poynter called Bequette to the stand, who testified to receiving frantic messages about the misspelling on social media and said he was shocked and upset to learn of the error so close to "the goal line."
Pierce said he did not understand why the counties did not take steps to correct the error before early voting, but he was not willing to send notice. He clarified that votes for "Jack" Bequette would count for Jake Bequette and that write-in votes for Bequette would not.
Afterward, Bequette told reporters that Pierce was right to call the situation "deeply troubling" and that his team plans to continue the serving process to the relevant parties.
"They were totally negligent, at best," he said. "This is not the end. This is just the beginning."
He said he was hearing from voters "all over the state" who were confused, but didn't say how many people he had heard from. In a news release, he reiterated a call for Thurston and Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge to investigate the error, which he characterized as election fraud.
Kimberly Dale, an attorney representing the Craighead County Election Commission, said Thursday that commissioners had sought advice from the state Board of Election Commissioners when they found out about the error and held a public meeting as required by law. The county did not have the updated software it needed to make the correction ahead of early voting, and had posted signs with the correct spelling of Bequette's name at polling sites, she said.
Bart Calhoun, an attorney representing the Phillips County Election Commission, declined to comment after Friday's hearing.