County election officials raise concerns about 3 state bills

A handful of bills working through General Assembly committees could change how and when voters participate in primary, special and general elections, officials said last week.

One bill would lump all special and school district elections to either May or November instead of throughout the year. Another would push the presidential candidate primaries back two months into March. A third bill would cut down early voting from two weeks before an election to just one.

Election bills

• SB 349, sponsored by Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale: Limits early voting to one week before an election instead of two.

• SB 389, sponsored by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch: Pushes presidential primary to March instead of May.

• HB 1422, sponsored by Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena: Moves special and school elections to either May or November, to coincide with primaries and general elections.

Source: Staff report

Benton and Washington county election officials said the proposals could make elections more difficult to hold and could confuse voters.

"We want to do the best job that we possibly can," said Russell Anzalone, chairman of the Benton County Election Commission. "To us, the commissioners, it's all about the voter."

Fewer Elections

The first proposal, House Bill 1422, would require school elections to be part of the general elections, while some special elections would be clumped with either the May primary or general elections. School board elections are held in September, while special elections can be held throughout the year.

State Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, didn't return multiple calls last week, but the bill says it's intended to "promote voter turnout." Participation in special and school elections is notoriously low, which has been blamed partly on their taking place when voter interest has faded or has yet to build.

"We have hardly anybody ever show up for school board elections," said Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, who's sponsoring the bill in the Senate. "It's becoming increasingly important that folks have a voice and get involved."

The state spends billions of dollars on education each year, English noted, while only a small core of committed people vote on the officials who make education decisions.

"People have to get out there and talk to the voters about the issues," she said of school board candidates. "Right now, they don't have to do anything."

Special elections to fill office vacancies and a few other specific situations would be exempt from the bill.

The House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, which Bell chairs, was set to consider the bill Friday but didn't vote on it because of time. The other two are set for that committee or the Senate equivalent Tuesday.

Anzalone and Washington County election coordinator Jennifer Price said the change could confuse voters and make elections more complicated, requiring more time and money and allowing more chances for mistakes.

The problem is school election precincts don't line up with general election precincts, Price said. Fixing this would require precincts to splinter, adding dozens of precincts that each have their own combination of candidates and specific ballots. Some of these smaller precincts would be home to just a dozen or so people, Price said.

"There's even one that only has one voter in it," she said.

Anzalone said he could understand the bill might boost turnout and save money but still worried about the effects of pushing several elections together.

"I think you would also find an awful lot of undervotes," or people who vote on some races and not others, he said. He saw the problem in recent elections when questions on medical marijuana or alcohol sales were on the ballot. "You would not believe the number of people that only voted for alcohol and marijuana and didn't vote for the president. That's what they went in for."

Earlier Primaries

Senate Bill 389 would officially make Arkansas part of the "SEC primary," a presidential primary held in March instead of May throughout the states that make up the Southeast Conference of college athletics. Alabama's secretary of state first called for the move, and it's caught on in Georgia, Tennessee and elsewhere, according to The Associated Press.

"Arkansas and a lot of the Southern states have always been an afterthought as far as picking the presidential primary (nominee), and this would just move it up and at least give us a chance, a shot to get some of these candidates into our state, and talk to them and let them discuss the issues," State Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, said in mid-February. He didn't return multiple calls last week.

The chance two Arkansas figures, former Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Secretary of State and Sen. Hillary Clinton, could make a run in the 2016 race has bolstered interest in the earlier primary in Arkansas.

Price said the primary itself wouldn't be a problem; her concern is it would push candidate certification and ballot draws 75 days before the primary, or into the holidays in late December, which could be more difficult with fewer election workers around.

"People kind of disappear over Christmas," Price said. She suggested allowing ballot draws and other requirements to take place in early December.

Anzalone said he was less worried.

"We would have to adjust to that, but it is what it is," he said with a laugh. "I don't have a problem with that one at all. I think it would save the candidates a lot of money by concentrating in the South and southeastern states rather than traveling from Washington to Florida, then to California, then New York."

Arkansas tried an earlier primary in 2008, when Clinton and Huckabee were pursuing their parties' nomination. Turnout for the leftover primaries in May plummeted, and Arkansas didn't get much from the deal, said State Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale.

"We quickly went to the back burner because it didn't matter," said Woods, who led the effort in the House to return the primary to May in 2009 and is part of the Senate committee that will consider SB 389. He said he might support moving primaries if local races are moved as well, but for now, "I'm not sure I'm really sold on it."

Less Early Voting

The final proposal, Senate Bill 349, tweaks the state requirement for early voting to be made available. Instead of starting 15 days before elections, early voting would begin the week before.

State Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, said he introduced the bill after local election officials said two weeks was costing too much time and money.

"I'm not sure if I'm going to run the bill or not, but we'll take a look at it," he said Friday. "We filed it to get the conversation started."

Early voting has been on the rise across the county in the last several years, including in Northwest Arkansas, where both counties added new early voting sites last year. More than a third of votes cast last Election Day in Washington County were cast early, a record for a midterm. Roughly half were cast early in Benton County, Anzalone said.

"We benefit from having two weeks of early voting," Price said. The process means more convenience and speed for voters and ballot counters alike, she said.

Dan Holtmeyer can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @NWADanH.

A Section on 03/02/2015

Upcoming Events