Secretaries of state in Arkansas mostly function without a lot of public attention, unless and until the officeholder sets his or her sights on higher — or at least lateral — office.
The most memorable for me was a guy named Bill McCuen, who held the office from 1985 to 1995, a period that covers my first days as a reporter out of college at The Sentinel-Record in Hot Springs. McCuen had served as county judge there for two terms.
It’s hard to forget a state officeholder when you’ve photographed him at a summertime festival vigorously competing in a cow chip throwing contest, with all the requisite jokes about the unfair advantage politicians have because they’re quite experienced at spreading such pasture-ized materials.
McCuen had the added notoriety of pleading guilty to corruption charges and tax evasion not long after he was defeated in the 1994 election.
It’s also a position that has attracted people whose name recognition has little or nothing to do with them. There was Paul Riviere (1979-1985), who was neither a famed horse-riding patriot in the American Revolution nor leader of a rock band in the 1960s and 1970s; Charlie Daniels (2003-2011), who didn’t sing “The Devil went down to Georgia”; and Mark Martin (2011-2019), who wasn’t the Arkansas-born, Hall of Fame NASCAR driver.
Most Arkansans couldn’t name their secretary of state. The current officeholder is John Thurston, a Republican and minister from Sheridan who served two terms as state land commissioner. He’s been secretary of state since 2019.
The office is important, especially in its role leading the state’s elections.
Thurston made news the other day, which is unusual for the position. Its occupants usually eschew the headlines but will speak at any chicken-dinner gathering in the state that will have them.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has been peppered with questions about voting in the Nov. 3 election and protecting access in the midst of a pandemic. We’re constantly warned the best medicine is to avoid crowds and surfaces touched by a lot of people. Voting involves both.
The answer, some suggest, is absentee voting — allowing people to cast votes without going to polling places. Five states conduct elections entirely with mail-in voting; a couple dozen allow for “no excuse” absentee voting. But in Arkansas, if you want to skip the polls and vote absentee, you’ve got to explain yourself. Valid excuses in the law include being unavoidably absent or having illnesses or physical disabilities.
Week before last, Thurston issued a statement saying the way he views current state law, a pandemic is an adequate excuse for voting absentee. Hutchinson embraced Thurston’s perspective Thursday, in part because it relieves him of a need to take any extraordinary steps to ease voting procedures. The heads of the Republican and Democratic parties joined both men in supporting the state’s approach.
Doyle Webb, the GOP chairman, stressed voter identification would be necessary and was vital to election security, but Thurston later said a voter’s signature, under penalty of perjury, was adequate. Thurston was wrong. Voters will need to provide a photocopy of acceptable identification when they submit their ballot by mail or have the ID available if they return the ballot to a county clerk in person.
Does that settle the voting matter? Maybe. It sure seems a step in the right direction, but there are still those who believe election procedures should be further eased — longer early voting periods; mailing ballots out to every voter rather than requiring an absentee request; eliminating the voter ID requirement, since not everyone has a copier at his home.
Will a secretary of state’s interpretation of the law be adequate? Maybe, but we may not know until someone is unhappy with an election outcome and decides to challenge it.
Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWAGreg.