Washington County election officials critical of legislation

'I Voted' stickers are shown in this file photo.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)
'I Voted' stickers are shown in this file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Washington County election officials said Tuesday they're puzzled by state legislation to make ballots available for inspection and copying for 30 days after an election has been certified.

"Why? What's the intent behind this?" Renee Oelschlaeger, chairman of the county's Election Commission, asked when the bill was brought up for discussion by the commission.

Jennifer Price, election director, said Senate Bill 488, which has 14 sponsors in the state Senate and 47 in the state House of Representatives, doesn't offer an explanation and conflicts with state laws.

Price said the law provides that ballots are stored for two years following an election and "shall not be opened by anyone" unless directed by a court or by order of the chairman of the State Board of Election Commissioners for the purpose of conducting an election audit.

Price said having to keep thousands of ballots in the Election Commission office, and provide a process for anyone to review and copy them would take up space and require more full-time staff to monitor the process.

Price said the only reason she could see for having the ballots open for inspection would be to show an election was accurate. She said having an audit done could provide that evidence. In an audit, the ballots are compared to the results provided by the voting machines, which wouldn't be done by someone just copying the ballots.

"If someone is concerned about the election, a better solution is having each county do an audit," Price said. "Photocopying the ballots proves nothing."

The commissioners discussed other legislation, including House Bill 1715 which would change the procedures for canvassing absentee ballots and dealing with instances where voters fail to follow instructions and place items other than their ballots, such as a copy of their voter ID or voter statement, in the ballot-only envelope. The new law would require those ballots not be opened until election day.

Price said current practice is for teams of election workers to open the ballot-only envelopes to check for IDs and voter statements while the ballots are being canvassed, or prepared, for counting during the early voting period. If the items aren't included, Price said, the election staff has time to send the voter notice they need to go to the County Clerk's Office by the Monday after election day to show their ID so their vote can be counted.

Kim Dennision, Benton County's election coordinator, said she has also reviewed the bill and agreed it would slow the election process.

"A lot of people put the voter statement and their ID in with the ballot," Dennision said. "It's just going to slow down our process."

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