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Phillips County gets heat over vote; state cites litany of issues in filing

by Stephen Simpson | November 23, 2022 at 9:18 a.m.
The Phillips County Courthouse in Helena-West Helena is shown in this April 2012 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

Ballot errors, polling locations that opened late, and the mixing of early votes and election day votes are among the issues that led the State Board of Election Commissioners to file a complaint against the Phillips County Election Commission for how it has handled the 2022 election cycle.

State board member Bilenda Harris-Ritter made a motion Tuesday to have state Board of Election Commissioners Director Daniel Shults file a complaint against the Phillips County Election Commission based on issues raised by an election monitor. The motion was unanimously approved.

"I think from what you have said already that we need to vote to have a complaint filed on Phillips County so we can investigate what problems occurred in the process that caused the delay on getting any results, and why in the world that county can't get it input into the secretary of state's office," Ritter said.

Shults said the primary problem with the county's election data not being uploaded to the secretary of state's office was because of the county's multiple ballot errors.

"The big picture problem is that there is only supposed to be one election, and in the process of doing these corrections they had basically somehow created separate data sets and the system isn't designed to allow you to combine elections," Shults said.

Shults also said the monitor noticed a conversation being had regarding absentee ballots that will probably be tied to an ongoing investigation into Phillips County's election process that started during the primary election in May.

The state Board of Election Commissioners sent election monitors to Lee and Phillips counties last month in response to a request for election monitors.

Shults told board members a monitor was in Phillips County until Nov. 10 because of some challenges that arose, including ballots that printed in a way that made them unscannable by election machines.

"As we all know now there was a problem, which led to a delay in preparation of the ballots that led to the first two days of early voting being done essentially on paper ballots," Shults said. "There were down-the-line challenges of that.

"The good news is that voting did take place. While it didn't have all of the features that you are supposed to have, voting was available."

Shults said the reporting delay wasn't an issue of fraud or vote tampering, but simply multiple errors made by county officials. He also said the monitor noted in October that county officials were aware that certifying the results of the election would be a problem that might require state intervention and supervision.

"I don't have a problem where there is doubt on the outcome of the election," Shults said. "There is a lot of doubts when it comes to the process, or quality of the process, that needs to be worked on, and it will certainly be our project county moving forward."

Tuesday's decision comes several days after Dexter Miller, the Democratic candidate for the House District 62 seat, requested a recount after election results indicated he lost by 618 votes to Republican Rep. Mark McElroy.

Miller said he believed ballots were counted incorrectly by hand while the machines were down in Phillips County.

Arkansas law allows any candidate dissatisfied with returns from any precinct to request a recount before the results are certified. The person who requests the recount must pay for it. If it changes the outcome of the election, the requester's money is refunded.

House District 62 encompasses Phillips and Lee counties and parts of Desha, Arkansas and Monroe counties. Phillips County is the lone county to have no data for the race on the secretary of state's website.

Attempts to contact Cal Woodridge, the county's election coordinator, about the recount results were not returned as of Tuesday afternoon.

Secretary of state spokesman Kevin Niehaus said Tuesday the office hadn't received any general election results from Phillips County.

Martin Rawls, the Republican Party chair for Phillips County and justice of the peace elect for District 8, said Tuesday that the recount gave Miller an additional four votes out of Phillips County. That gave him 2,345 votes compared with McElroy's 1,948, but it wasn't enough to overcome McElroy's overall lead of 3,964 to 3,752.

Multiple government officials have expressed concern with the pace and communication coming from Phillips County with political candidates having to figure out election results on their own.

State Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Knoxville, released a letter last week that he sent to Phillips County Judge Clark Hall expressing concern about the reporting of vote totals from the general election.

"I am inclined to ask Joint Performance Review to conduct an investigation; however, I would first like to request from you an explanation of the issues that may have been encountered in your county leading to the delay," Pilkington said in the letter.

Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, and State Geographic Information Officer Shelby Johnson also expressed frustration with the delay in Phillips County election results.

"[Forty-six] counties have certified their November 8th election results, 29 have 100% reported results, and will certify soon and then there is [one] county that has ... zero, zilch, nada...," Johnson said Monday in a Twitter post.

Rawls said even the recount was something he had never seen because of the amount of time it took to tabulate votes.

"Never seen anything quite like this," Rawls told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette at 5:40 p.m. Monday. "They have been counting since 9 a.m."

Rawls said local election officials didn't say what the reason was behind the delays but placed blame on election systems and software issues.

Chris Madison, legal counsel for the state Board of Election Commissioners, said he was in Phillips County for the recount and learned the county basically created three separate ballots trying to correct various errors.

"On Day 1 and 2 there was the hand-printed ones," he said. "Then they had a ballot set where a third candidate was listed in the lieutenant governor's race, and it didn't have a school race on it. They caught that and had to take the lieutenant governor write-in candidate out because they had it listed as independent, and then add the school race."

Madison said some of the early votes also were combined with some election day votes, which led to staff having to separate them out.

Board Commissioner Jamie Clemmer asked Madison if the county's election commissioners were new.

"There is lots of opportunity for growth," Madison said with a smile.


Print Headline: Phillips County gets heat over vote

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