The special election for the vacant state Senate District 21 seat could have been quite controversial if it had been closer. Perhaps the result will at least provide state officials with a hint that they should be prepared for disputed election results under a new law.
Since Saturday the Craighead County Election Commission has been publishing a one-third page advertisement in the classified section of The Jonesboro Sun aimed especially at voters who cast an absentee ballot in the Jan. 14 special election but failed to provide the identification required under Act 595 of 2013.
That is the law sponsored by Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, and other Republicans, passed over Gov. Mike Beebe’s veto on a party-line vote. (Remember the criticism of the Affordable Care Act as a partisan measure? Apparently that only matters when the other party wins.)
The law requires that anyone voting in person provide valid photo identification to poll workers and that anyone voting absentee provide photo ID or other identification, specified as a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck or other government document that shows the voter’s name and address.
King contended that the law was needed to combat voter fraud. Opponents said it was aimed at discouraging poor, elderly, disabled and minority citizens from voting.
The first election held under the new law uncovered a problem in dealing with absentee voters.
The state Board of Election Commissioners interpreted Act 595 as giving absentee voters one chance to submit identification with their ballot. That’s pretty clear in the law, although it allows exceptions for members of the military, the spouse of a military service person on active duty or a resident of a long-term care or residential care facility.
However, Martha Adcock, an attorney for Secretary of State Mark Martin, pointed out in a letter to Craighead County Election Commission chairman Scott McDaniel of Jonesboro that another provision of the law offers a remedy for those absentee voters who fail to provide proper ID with their ballots, which are considered provisional and not counted.
Those voters have until noon on the Monday following the election to furnish proof of their identity. If they do, their ballots should be counted. Oddly, the same provision also seems to add an extra requirement for one of the exceptions, saying that a nursing home resident should provide documentation from a nursing home administrator attesting that he or she is indeed a resident.
The problem is getting word to the voters whose ballots were not counted.
Therefore, the Craighead County Election Commission went to some extra expense by placing an advertisement for "those who know or have reason to believe they failed to provide a copy of a current and valid photo identification card or a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck or other government document that shows their name and address."
In the special election for Senate District 21 most of the 83 provisional ballots were cast by absentee voters. They were given an extra day to respond because Monday was a holiday, and they were told they could provide the necessary ID in person, by bearer or by fax.
Republican John Cooper of Bono defeated Democrat Steve Rockwell of Jonesboro by more than 1,000 votes so those provisional absentee ballots can’t make a difference in the outcome. But that’s certainly enough votes to make a difference in some elections. For example, Rockwell won the Democratic nomination by 24 votes over Radius Baker, also of Jonesboro, before Act 595 went in effect.
The section on requesting an absentee ballot on the Craighead County Web site doesn’t say anything about submitting identification with the ballot. Perhaps that’s done when the ballot is mailed to the voter.
To be fair, at least the problem this time was confined mostly to absentee ballots. The new law also provides for election officials to set aside as provisional the ballot of anyone who shows up at the polls without a proper photo ID, again allowing an exception for a resident of a nursing homes subject to the documentation from the home’s administrator.
And the law has another set of requirements and stipulations for a first-time voter who registered by mail and wants to vote absentee.
The law is unclear enough that Adcock, in her letter dated three days after the election, resorted to quoting what King said in his testimony when presenting the bill. And the remedy provision of the law, she said, "makes no distinction between ‘absentee voters,’ ‘early voters’ or ‘election-day voters.’"
Therefore, the county should "treat ALL ballots where the voter failed to provide appropriate identification as provisional and allow the voter the opportunity to provide identification to the election commission or the county clerk within the cure period."
The Legislature has produced a new law that has two state agencies providing different interpretations of key provisions, with the local commission caught in the middle. At least this special election has pinpointed some of the potential problems in time to get them fixed before this year’s primaries and general election.
Our new election mantra seems to be: Every vote counts, except when it doesn’t. Thank goodness we stamped out all that fraud.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.