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Thurston, Gorman spar over role of secretary of state’s office

Role of office is main topic by Neal Earley | October 19, 2022 at 3:58 a.m.
The Arkansas flag is shown in this file photo.

Secretary of State John Thurston and Anna Beth Gorman debated the state's low voter turnout, cyber security and how to improve constituent services Tuesday as part of a series of debates hosted by Arkansas PBS in Conway.

The debate was the first and only scheduled forum for the two candidates vying for secretary of state, a constitutional office that oversees elections, state records, the Capitol and documents for businesses. Thurston, a Republican from East End, is running for another four-year term.

Gorman, a Democrat and a nonprofit executive from North Little Rock, blamed Thurston for not improving the state's low voter participation rate, saying she would become an advocate for voter registration targeting overlooked communities. According to a federal report on the 2020 election, Arkansas ranked last in the nation in voter turnout and registration.

"If you are going to be judging the performance of this job, the first thing you should judge it by is how many people are participating in our elections," Gorman said.

Thurston pushed back, saying as secretary of state "there is very little room for advocacy."

"If you are going to do an outreach or a voter drive or try to get more people to participate, which group do you pick?" Thurston said. "And that's why it's a very fine line for the chief election officer to go to any particular group and encourage them to vote."

Countering conspiracy theories about the previous election, Gorman said the 2020 election was a "free, fair and sound election."

Thurston said he was not sure about the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election, saying he could not vouch for other states' election regimes.

"The short answer is, I positively 100% can tell you with certainty that I don't know," Thurston in response to a question about the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

He added the last election in Arkansas was among the nation's "safest and most secure."

Gorman said if elected she would push for Arkansas to allow voters to register online. Arkansas is one of 11 states that do not have an option for residents to register to vote online, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

"This is low-hanging fruit to overnight change voter participation," Gorman said. "And again, we live in a society where we do everything on our phone; why aren't we providing this access to Arkansans right now?"

Thurston said he was "not in opposition" to online voter registration but said the issue is up to the General Assembly.

"It is completely a legislative issue, completely," Thurston said. "If done correctly, yes, I think it would be convenient and a good thing."

Debate moderator Steve Barnes of Arkansas PBS described Gorman's view of the office as one where she would "use the bully pulpit" if elected, while Thurston saw it as more of a "bookkeeping" role.

Thurston said there are "times to speak out," giving the example of speaking against a lawsuit on the state's election system during the covid-19 pandemic, pushing back against calls for voter drop boxes.

"There are times you do speak up," Thurston said. "You don't just sit there behind the desk and make sure the grass is mowed and the light bulbs are changed."

Gorman said most Arkansans do not know who the secretary of state is and promised to make the role more high-profile. Later in the debate, Thurston responded by saying "maybe there is a reason no one has heard of the secretary of state in Arkansas -- because I've done a good job."

"There's a reason I haven't been in the headlines, at least not very many times," he said.

Thurston, who is finishing his first term as secretary of state, said voters should trust his experience in government, also having previously served as the commissioner of state lands. Gorman is executive director of the Women's Foundation of Arkansas and said her experience leading a nonprofit has prepared her for secretary of state.

When Brandon Evans of television station 40/29 News in Fort Smith asked the candidates what area of the secretary of state's office needs the most improvement, Thurston said security of the Capitol building. The secretary of state is responsible for the Capitol's security and oversees Arkansas State Capitol Police.

"Based on the question, the way it was framed, my mind goes to the security of lives when they are there at that Capitol," Thurston said.

Gorman said voter participation and business support services are the areas that need the greatest improvement.

"The next Sam Walton lives in Arkansas," Gorman said. "She might live right here in Conway, but she cannot navigate our current website." Gorman said.

On cybersecurity, Thurston said he is "very confident" about the state's election security, saying federal agents will be onsite to help prevent foreign interference.

"For the first time we have a cybersecurity specialist on staff, and so we put in some safeguards," he said.

Gorman touted her experience on the state's Computer Science and Cybersecurity Task Force, saying she was "excited" to know the state has a full-time cybersecurity specialist but further improvements may be needed.

"We have to always be vigilant because technology is ever-changing," Gorman said. "So records today might be safe, but that doesn't mean that there isn't going to be new technology or new efforts from bad actors tomorrow."

On the secretary of state's role in business, Gorman criticized Thurston's management, saying shortages have slowed the office's business services role.

"I absolutely intend to focus a lot of attention on this seldom talked about but very important aspect of the secretary of state's job," Gorman said.

Thurston pushed back, saying he opened a satellite office in Northwest Arkansas to accommodate the booming economy there and that his office had 50,000 businesses and nonprofits register with the state during his first term.

"We created the first ever secretary of state satellite office, if you will, that handles business commercial service issues," Thurston said.

Both candidates said they would not support consolidating the office with other constitutional offices such as commissioner of state lands, auditor and treasurer.

After the debate, candidates were invited to take questions from reporters.

Gorman answered questions about voter suppression, voter participation and Capitol security. Gorman said she supports voter ID laws, but worried the state's election laws suppress voter turnout and registration.

Thurston declined to participate in the post-debate news conference.

Print Headline: Secretary of state hopefuls debate


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