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Arkansas Board of Election Commissioners decertifies Phillips County commissioners

State faults Phillips County commission over voting errors by Will Langhorne | June 2, 2023 at 5:04 a.m.
The Phillips County Courthouse in Helena-West Helena is shown in this April 2012 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

A state panel has voted to decertify all three members of the Phillips County Election Commission after finding local officials had to issue printed PDFs of ballots for the first day and a half of early voting during last year's general election because of programming errors.

Commissioners Harold Boals, Mark Lynn and John Huff will be ineligible to serve on the commission for two federal election cycles starting July 1, according to an investigative report released Thursday by the State Board of Election Commissioners.

The state board accepted a recommendation from its staff to decertify the commissioners during an April 19 meeting. The investigative report became publicly available 30 days after state officials sent their sanction letter May 2.

All three commissioners have accepted the settlement offer, said Chris Madison, legal counsel for the State Board of Election Commissioners.

The State Board of Election Commissioners has 10 cases involving Phillips County which investigators consider "interrelated on many issues," according to the report. Madison said the other cases concern officials outside of the commission including candidates, poll workers and poll supervisors. Investigation reports for all the cases have yet to be released.

Last year, the state board filed a complaint against the commission based on issues -- including ballot errors, polling locations that opened late and the mixing of early votes and election day votes -- raised by an election monitor. The county also drew criticism from officials and lawmakers over a delay in reporting vote counts.

During the April board meeting, Madison said "there is a great deal of consternation in this county and conflict amongst the commission, amongst the commission and other county officials, and candidates and against candidates."

He told board members a "high-ranking, respected person in the community" said during an interview "I don't need a clean election, I just need a competent election."

"That was really eye-opening," Madison said. "That really encapsulates what happened in this county."

Huff, a Democrat, said during a phone interview Thursday he accepted the decertification but alleged that county officials had interfered with the commission's duties and the election process. While Huff said he raised his concerns with state investigators, he said had not filed an official complaint.

Huff said he intends to remain involved in politics but does not plan to make another bid for the commission when his decertification is lifted.

Lynn, a Republican, also said commissioners had faced difficulties in working with county officials and felt the commission is serving as a scapegoat.

"We were stymied at every junction," he said during a phone interview Thursday.

As a commissioner, Lynn claimed he had to work long hours and was not paid on time. Lynn said he joined the commission out of a sense of civic duty but is not interested in returning following his decertification.

Attempts to contact Boals, the Republican chair of the commission, were not returned as of Thursday evening.

In the report, state investigators said local election officials had to issue printed PDF images of ballots to voters during the first day and a half of early voting due to a series of pre-election programming errors. While election officials ordered new programming and ballots a few days before early voting opened Oct. 24, the new ballots did not arrive until the middle of the second day of early voting.

State officials found the early vote poll opened at 8 a.m. on the first day of early voting as required by state law. But voters could not immediately cast their ballots since machines were not properly programmed and Election Coordinator Calvin Woodridge only began printing PDF versions of ballots around 8:30 a.m.

Investigators found local officials stored the printed PDF ballots in a ballot box and hand-counted them as part of the election results, according to the report.

While state officials said the makeshift ballots were a necessity to permit voting, they noted that marking and tabulating equipment "was inoperable because of the lack of appropriate election media."

"The absence of usable voting equipment prevents compliance with statutorily required accessible voting," the report states.

Investigators pointed to state law that requires the county board of election commissioners to prepare for elections by ensuring voting machines are prepared, programmed, tested and adjusted. The board is required to test all election media at least seven days before the election to ensure that voting systems are properly configured.

State officials attributed the lack of election media and ballots on the first day of early voting to several factors, including the Phillips County Election Commission's "significant if not absolute dependency" on its election coordinator. Woodridge, who started at the end of September into the beginning of October, replaced an election coordinator who had been trained on how to use the voting equipment during the primary.

During an interview with state officials, Woodridge said pre-election ballot preparations were a challenge and that he had not worked with the equipment before.

Attempts to contact Woodridge were not returned as of Thursday evening.

State officials also found the commission "had done little if any election preparation" because of its reliance on the election coordinator.

"Staff heard the word 'scramble' from each commissioner numerous times when discussing election preparations," officials said in the report. "This lack of preparation required numerous last-minute changes to the election media and ballot styles. These last-minute changes resulted in delayed receipt of election media and ballots for early voting."

When asked by investigators why local officials had to resort to printing ballots, Boals said, "I really don't know what happened," according to the report.

Huff said he had "no idea" why voting machines were not available during the first days of early voting, state officials said. When investigators asked if Lynn knew why ballots were not available or the machines were not working, Lynn said he didn't know, according to the report.

State officials in the report recommended the dismissal of a complaint that claimed due to the programming errors the entire election should be hand counted.

The State Board of Election Commissioners is allowed to decertify election commissioners under a state law enacted in 2021 without the signature of former Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Madison said the board had already used the law to decertify an election commissioner in Desha County following the 2022 primary election.

Each of Arkansas' 75 counties has a board of election commissioners made up of two members elected by the county committee of the majority party and one member of the county committee of the minority party.

Following the decertifications, Madison said the county committees for the Republican and Democratic parties will have to elect new commissioners.

Martin Rawls, the Republican Party chair for Phillips County, said his party will hold elections for the commission Monday. Attempts to contact Jerome Turner, who is listed as chair of the Democratic Party for Phillips County on the ArkDems website, were not returned as of Thursday evening.

CORRECTION: The State Board of Election Commissioners on Thursday released a report on its investigation into the Phillips County Election Commission after county officials issued printed PDFs of ballots for the first day and a half of early voting during last year’s general election because of programming errors. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated when the report was made public.

Print Headline: Election officials decertified


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