Republican John Thurston is asking voters for one more term as Arkansas' secretary of state, saying he is a steady hand who has led multiple constitutional offices, while Democratic challenger Anna Beth Gorman, a nonprofit executive, pledges to be a more active voice for the office.
The secretary of state is Arkansas' top election official and has a wide range of responsibilities when it comes to elections, including maintaining records and making sure the state is in compliance with federal law.
The office is also responsible for the maintenance and security of the Capitol and its grounds along with being the go-to government office for many business-related services. For new businesses, the secretary of state is often the first point of contact as the office maintains documents for many companies and nonprofits.
Thurston, 49, and Gorman, 40, will face off in the Nov. 8 general election. Early voting is underway and runs through Nov. 7.
Thurston, of East End, was first elected secretary of state in 2018 after serving as commissioner of state lands for eight years. Thurston said he is running on his background and said he is the only candidate "who has run a constitutional office."
"I was secretary during a record turnout election in the last presidential election and during a pandemic no less, and had one of the most secure and safe elections in state history," he said.
Gorman, of North Little Rock, is CEO of the Women's Foundation of Arkansas and said her nonprofit executive experience has prepared her for the role, calling herself a "problem solver." Gorman is also the board chair of the board of the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce.
"In my day job as an advocate for women and girls it's all about trying to create pathways for economic security," Gorman said. "The secretary of state's office has a unique function in our state government that really does have an opportunity to provide pathways to people -- in the forms of starting a business and having their vote, their voice, count."
Arkansas ranked last in the nation in voter participation and turnout for the 2020 election, according to a report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and Gorman has placed the blame on Thurston for not using his office to encourage more people in the state to register to vote.
Thurston pointed to the last election, in 2020, as proof the public is becoming more engaged as the state had a record turnout, mirroring a national trend. Gorman said if elected she would become a more proactive secretary of state who will try to reach communities to increase voter registration and turnout.
"[As] secretary of state your job is to really help people understand and get information about how they can participate in the polls, and we are not seeing anything from this current secretary of state about how easy it is to vote," Gorman said.
Gorman said she also would push for online voter registration in Arkansas, something that would require action from the General Assembly.
Thurston said he supports online voter registration "if done right," citing an Alabama law as a good model for the state to follow.
On voter turnout, Thurston said as a constitutional officer it is not his role to push people to vote, saying it would be a misuse of his authority and platform. Thurston said the registration and voting process is straightforward, and instead the state should focus on educating young people about the importance of voting to boost engagement.
"It's a fine line between being an advocate and just simply doing your job, especially when it comes to voting," Thurston said. "If you are cherry-picking the groups, the area or the demographics on who to focus on registration or to encourage to vote, all of a sudden I think you become, I guess, an advocate."
Thurston said there has been a record in registration from businesses and nonprofits with around 50,000 doing so during his first term. To help accommodate the growing demand for services, Thurston established a satellite office in Fayetteville.
Thurston admitted the covid-19 pandemic created a backlog for the office as it was servicing requests for Paycheck Protection Program loans, and said his office is playing "catch-up."
"I will admit probably for the last four-five months we have been working very hard to, for lack of a better word, try to play catch-up," Thurston said.
Gorman said business services at the secretary of state's office need to be revamped, saying the office is understaffed and the website "is a mess." Gorman said customer service has been poor because it is understaffed.
Gorman said the office should be more integrated with other state agencies such as the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and the Attorney General's office.
"Why isn't the secretary of state a partner in the entrepreneur support ecosystem in Arkansas," Gorman said. "I think this is a real missed opportunity and we could be doing so much more."
During his first term, Thurston added a cybersecurity specialist to the secretary of state's office after issues of foreign hacking of election offices occurred around the country during the 2016 election.
When it comes to securing the Capitol grounds, Thurston pointed to 2020, which included protests that turned violent in Little Rock and a riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Thurston said police have new equipment such as tear gas and training to handle future threats.
Thurston said Arkansas Capitol Police have an intelligence officer to monitor social media to help with surveillance. On election night, Thurston said there are cybersecurity specialists from the federal government on site to help monitor the election.
"We have a lot of gear and a lot of training that we did not have four or five years ago, and it's just because of the changing times we are in," Thurston said.
Gorman was a member of the governor's Task Force on Cyber Security and Computer Science and supported Thurston's call to hire a cybersecurity specialist.
"It is not enough to just have an employee. We've literally got to be vigilant and constantly looking at what's coming down the road," Gorman said.
On the security of the grounds, Gorman said if elected she would defer to the chief of the Capitol Police on what is needed to secure the grounds.
Asked about the results of the 2020 presidential election, Thurston declined to provide an answer, saying, "I could not tell you for sure that all of the certifications were accurate."
Thurston said the 2020 election reaffirmed his belief in state-run elections and does not support further federal laws to regulate elections.
Much of the questioning of the 2020 results came from former President Donald Trump, who pushed unverified conspiracies about voter fraud and pressured election officials, including Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who Thurston called a friend.
Gorman said voter suppression stemming from "historical disenfranchisement" is cause for the state's low voter turnout, but she breaks with most national Democrats who claim voter ID laws are a form of suppressing the vote.
Gorman said she thinks people should be required to show an ID to vote.
Secretary of State
Residence: East End
Occupation: Arkansas Secretary of State
Education: Henderson State University; Agape College; University of Arkansas Little Rock; Sheridan High School (1991)
Public service experience: Arkansas Commissioner of State Lands; Arkansas Secretary of State
Anna Beth Gorman
Residence: North Little Rock
Occupation: CEO, Women’s Foundation of Arkansas
Education: Bachelor of Art, Hollins University; Master of Public Administration, Graduate Certificate Nonprofit Management, University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Public service experience: Board chairperson, North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce; Little Rock Chamber of Commerce board; Governor’s Task Force on Cyber Security and Computer Science; Arvest Bank board; Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame board; Rotarian; Club 99 member; Arkansas Southern Capitol Project, founding board member