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Spanish placard going on Benton County voting machines to explain duplicated race

by Doug Thompson | October 24, 2020 at 7:03 a.m.
In this file photo stickers for early voters sit in a container Friday during early voting in the primary election at the Benton County clerk's office in Bentonville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)

ROGERS -- Benton County's 475 voting machines got new placards Friday afternoon, giving a Spanish-language explanation for why there are two races for the same state House district on the same ballot.

The signs provided the fastest, easiest fix to a potentially confusing issue in the House District 96 race in Rogers, the county Election Commission and the competing candidates agreed in a special commission meeting Friday.

Commission Chairman Russell Anzalone emphasized to the commission and the audience this was a one-time fix for a very specific problem. It is not a precedent for making all future election notices bilingual, he said.

Placards in English are already up to explain the situation.

Republican Joshua Bryant and Democrat Jon Comstock oppose each other for a two-year term in the House representing District 96, which begins in January. Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, resigned in July to accept a job at Northwest Arkansas Community College.

Hodges resignation left a vacancy. State law mandates a special election to fill the vacancy even though the remainder of Hodges' term was a few months.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson set the special election for Nov. 3, the same day as the regular election. The decision spared the county the expense of holding a separate election to pick a lawmaker who would serve until Dec. 31.

No Democrat filed for the special election. The only candidate is Republican nominee Jill Bryant -- Joshua Bryant's wife. Joshua Bryant serves on the Benton County Quorum Court. He would have been ineligible under Arkansas law to resign before the end of his term there and run in the special election.

Paper ballots for the election include a sentence stating Jill Bryant's term would end Dec. 31. However, that sentence does not appear on the screens of the county's voting machines when the ballot choices come up. The omission appears to be a computer coding problem, according to discussion on the issue at a meeting Thursday.

The apparent duplication could make voters think they had already voted in the District 96 race if they voted for Jill Bryant, Comstock had said in an email to the commission earlier in the week. Voters might skip the more consequential race mistakenly thinking they had already voted, Comstock argued.

Comstock told the commission Friday he would take no legal action in the matter, but could have, and he suggested the commission review its practices to make sure nothing similar happens in the future again.

The best solution would have been to add Jill Bryant to the category of unopposed candidates. Each ballot includes the option of voting for all unopposed candidates. "Jill Bryant's name never should have been on the ballot at all," Comstock said Friday.

Comstock requested Spanish-language placards during the commission meeting Thursday. The commission adjourned to give election staff time to work out if and how such a solution could be done.

Spanish-speakers make up the largest group of non-English speaking voters in District 96, which is why Comstock asked for a placard in that language, he said.

Early voting started Monday. Rewriting computer code to change the on-screen ballots in the middle of an election would be expensive, time consuming and carry the risk of more errors, said a letter dated Thursday by the county's voting machine vendor, Election Systems and Software of Omaha, Neb.

Fixing the problem on the voting machines would take a full day to do and another four days to test, the company said.

Joshua Bryant
Candidate State Representative District 96
Joshua Bryant Candidate State Representative District 96
Jon Comstock
Candidate State Representative District 96
Jon Comstock Candidate State Representative District 96

Doug Thompson can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWADoug.


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