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Brenda Blagg: Secretary of State's office makes bad situation worse

Secretary of State’s office flubs FOI requests by Brenda Blagg | August 17, 2016 at 1:00 a.m.

Some public officials just can't help making a bad story worse.

Take the case of Secretary of State Mark Martin and his office.

It wasn't bad enough that the Arkansas secretary of state's office sent out erroneous information in June to the state's county clerks, causing many to toss some otherwise eligible voters from state voter rolls.

Martin's office has apparently followed up by denying access to what ought to be public information about the whole mess.

The office is inviting a lawsuit, which just extends the story, rather than trying to be as transparent as possible about what went wrong. Officials there also seem to be handing off responsibility rather than trying to correct the situation.

The Democratic Party of Arkansas, one of the requesters of information about the snafu, has reportedly retained a law firm for a potential Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against Martin's office.

The FOI Act is the state law that guarantees access to most records held by public offices like Martin's. There are exceptions to that law, but the Democratic Party and others think they have a right to some information that Martin's office has yet to turn over.

The Democratic Party's attorney, Chris Burks, said documents requested Aug. 3 and received just last week were incomplete and delivered late. (The law prescribes how long an office may take to respond to an FOI Act request.)

What's more, he has said that his clients, along with voting rights groups, including the America Civil Liberties Union, may file a federal lawsuit over possible voting rights violations as well as Arkansas constitutional violations.

Maybe that would have happened anyway. Maybe not.

Martin's office certainly could have responded differently. As it was, the Republican officeholder reportedly had to be encouraged by fellow Republican, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, to comply with the open records law.

For the record, the ACLU also made requests under the FOI Act for similar information, as did the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. All those FOI requests made for more work for the secretary of state's office but compliance with the law is part of this or any other public job.

The secretary of state's office should have responded in a timely manner and with some explanation of why they refused to turn over some of the requested information.

Granted, the situation is complicated because it involves not just the secretary of state's office but also a couple of state agencies and all 75 counties' clerk's offices.

What happened in June was that Martin's office sent an updated list to county clerks of convicted felons who had supposedly lost their voting privileges. The list came from the Arkansas Crime Information Center but erroneously included names of people who were not convicted felons and of others who have had their voting rights restored.

The list reportedly hadn't been updated for two years because a former employee of Arkansas Community Correction died and no one knew how to do his job.

The Arkansas Crime Information Center, which is the agency that was actually supposed to track disqualified felons, responded to a secretary of state request with newly generated data lists that included the bad information.

On the lists were names of people convicted in municipal courts that were wrongly identified as felony convictions as well as the names of felons who had regained their right to vote.

The secretary of state relied on the data and shipped it off to the clerks.

Later, when the errors were reported, the secretary of state's office put the responsibility for verifying the data off on the clerks.

The office sent them a letter saying they should only deem a voter ineligible if that fact is independently confirmed.

The message came too late for some of the clerks, who had already removed some of the affected voters from the rolls.

There were 7,730 people in the database flagged as felons for the clerks. How many should not have been there is still unclear, as is how many have actually been removed from voter rolls.

The sooner the mess gets cleaned up, the better -- not just for those wrongly disenfranchised but also for the public officials involved along the way.

Commentary on 08/17/2016

Print Headline: From bad to worse


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