FAYETTEVILLE -- Election officials in Benton and Washington counties said Thursday a bill pending in the state Legislature regarding campaign signs and electioneering could cost them the use of many established polling places.
Senate Bill 275 was discussed at separate meetings Thursday by the Benton County and Washington County election commissions. In both meetings, election officials said they have heard from a number of polling locations they don't want to be forced to allow signs and electioneering on their properties and could end their participation in elections if that becomes a matter of state law.
"I could lose all three of my polling sites in Bella Vista," Kim Dennison, Benton County's election coordinator, said Thursday. "What am I going to do with 15,000 people who want to vote and have no place to go?"
Dennison said she has heard from a number of churches that have served as polling locations in Benton County elections and many have expressed concerns about losing control of their property during elections if the proposed legislation passes.
"I know that I'm going to lose a lot of churches," Dennison said. "It infringes on the property owner's rights."
Senate Bill 275 is sponsored by Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton. It has been referred back to the Senate State Agencies Committee for discussion and possible amendment.
The bill as written says any polling site or vote center shall allow any person outside the building and more than 100 feet from the primary entrance used by voters to audibly disseminate information advocating for or against any candidate, issue or measure on the ballot; display signs held in a person's hand advocating for or against any candidate, issue or measure on a ballot; and display attire advocating for or against any candidate, issue or measure on a ballot.
Washington County election officials expressed the same concerns as Dennison. Jennifer Price, the Election Commission's executive director, said she heard from a number of locations, mostly churches but also including Arvest Ballpark in Springdale, about the electioneering legislation. Price said electioneering at polling places is currently prohibited inside a 100-foot space from the entrance to the polling place and also limited by an attorney general's opinion stating property owners do not lose control of their property while it's being used as a polling place.
"These locations don't allow signs on their property," Price said.
Hammer said Thursday afternoon he was on his way to a meeting to discuss the bill and possible amendments.
"I know what their concerns are, and that's what we're going to try and work through," Hammer said. "I understand and appreciate their concerns."
Washington County has 26 polling places for the upcoming school elections, and 18 of those are churches, Price said. Jim Estes, a Washington County election commissioner, said if the law "mandates" polling places allow signs and electioneering outside the 100-foot space from the entrance, many will end their participation in elections. Estes said he would prefer some compromise, allowing the polling places to have a designated space for signs and electioneering but not giving their entire property over to campaigning.
"What I understand is if they mandate that it be allowed everywhere, we're going to lose churches because of this," Estes said.
Russ Anzalone, chairman of the Benton County Election Commission, echoed Estes' remarks. Anzalone is parish manager for St. Bernard Catholic Church in Bella Vista and said because of the number of other activities at the church, he couldn't allow the property and parking lot to be given over to electioneering.
Anzalone said Benton County has 18 polling locations -- 14 of which are churches -- for the May 9 school elections.
"If this bill were to passed, we would probably lose at least half of them," he said.
Senate Bill 275 is sponsored by Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton. The bill as written says that any polling site or vote center shall allow any person who is outside the building and more than 100 feet from the primary entrance used by voters to:
Audibly disseminate information that advocates for or against any candidate, issue or measure on the ballot.
Visually display signs held in a person's hand which advocate for or against any candidate, issue or measure on a ballot.
Visually display attire which advocates for or against any candidate, issue or measure on a ballot.
Source: Arkansas Senate