House panel endorses bill that would create state ‘election integrity unit’

Attorney general to handle probes of voting complaints

Arkansas Rep. Cindy Crawford, R-Fort Smith, talks with Rep. Jeremiah Moore, R-Clarendon, during presentation of House Bill 1537, which would allow electronic voter registration, during a meeting of the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs at the state Capitol on Wednesday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

A House committee on Wednesday advanced a bill that aims to create an "election integrity unit" with the state attorney general's office.

The committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs passed House Bill 1513 by Rep. Austin McCollum, R-Bentonville, in a voice vote with audible dissent from at least one lawmaker. The bill moves to the full House for further consideration.

Under the bill, the "election integrity unit" would be required to track all alleged violations, complaints and investigations related to election integrity in a database. The secretary of state and the State Board of Election Commissioners would have secure access to the database.

The unit also would oversee the attorney general's "election law violations hotline." The group would have to respond to notifications and complaints regarding alleged violations of voter registration and election laws and refer notifications and complaints to the State Board of Election Commissioners for investigation. The integrity unit also could receive sworn statements and issue subpoenas to compel the production of records and other documents.

Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, said the bill "feels like a big expansion of government" and asked what the unit would cost the state.

Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, who presented the bill, said the unit would be made up of staff members already working for the attorney general and would not cost the state additional funds.

Under the bill, the attorney general would be required to appoint a director of the unit. The attorney general also would be permitted to appoint other staff, including assistants, non-sworn investigators, professional staff and clerical staff.

In a written statement provided by a spokesperson, Attorney General Tim Griffin said he supported the bill.

"Election integrity is critically important to ensure confidence in our Republic. I am working with Rep. McCollum to make the bill even stronger," Griffin said in the statement Wednesday.

The secretary of state's office is also supportive of the bill, said Jaime Land, spokeswoman for Secretary of State John Thurston in a written statement Wednesday.

Wing said the bill also would require the State Board of Election Commissioners to gather data that would include information from the attorney general's office "election law violations hotline."

"That data and information can be presented to the legislature should there be any issues with regards to election integrity at regular intervals," he said.

An amended version of the bill would require the board to provide reports to the governor and the attorney general.

Clowney asked if the reports would include information on the people who had complaints filed against them.

"It's my understanding that pretty much anybody can have a complaint filed against them," she said. "Does that mean these people's information would be then searchable as part of public record and perhaps reported to and acted on by the state legislature?"

Daniel Shults, director of the State Board of Election Commissioners, said complaints are not published but are publicly available once the matter is resolved or a hearing is set by the respondent.

If during the course of an investigation the State Board of Election Commissioners determines there may be a criminal violation of voter registration or election laws, the panel would be permitted under the bill to turn the findings over to the "appropriate prosecutorial agency for criminal prosecution."

A prosecuting attorney would be allowed to designate an attorney employed by the attorney general's office as a special deputy prosecutor to prosecute charges. The bill notes that under the state Constitution, only a prosecuting attorney "has the duty and authority to commence and prosecute any criminal action".

A special deputy prosecuting attorney's power would be derivative from the prosecuting attorney, according to the bill.

The bill states the subchapter concerning the "election integrity unit" would not "limit the jurisdiction of any other state entity empowered by law to investigate, act upon, or dispose of alleged violations of state voter registration and election laws."

Brady Shiers with Arkansas Policy Panel raised concerns about the bill "politicizing" oversight of election integrity.

"By placing this power under the attorney general, who is an elected partisan official, you are politicizing something that shouldn't be politicized," he said. "The wonderful thing about the state board is that it operates outside of politics and political interest."

By creating the "election integrity unit," Shiers said the bill implies that the State Board of Election Commissioners is unable to investigate election integrity complaints on its own.

"I highly doubt that this is the case," he said. "It seems like all parties involved want to chip away at the state board's power and authority."

The State Board of Election Commissioners consists of a seven-member staff serving a seven-member board. The secretary of state serves as the board's chairperson. Two board members are appointed by the governor, and one member each is appointed by the chair of the state Democratic party, the chair of the state Republican party, the president pro tempore of the state Senate, and the speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives, according to the board's website.

Along with considering other election-related bills, the panel on Wednesday tabled a measure intended to allow online voter registration.

House Bill 1537 by Rep. Andrew Collins, D-Little Rock, failed to advance after a committee member requested a fiscal impact statement.