Arkansas Senate committee advances bill to regulate paper ballots

Republican Sen. Kim Hammer of Benton is seen here at a July 21, 2022 Arkansas Legislative Council meeting. (Arkansas Senate)

Arkansas counties that choose to hand count votes after an election would still have to use a state-approved machine to perform a preliminary count under a bill the state Senate passed on a 21-6 vote Tuesday.

Senate Bill 250 also would require counties that move to hand-marked, hand-counted ballots to bear the cost of printing the paper ballots and assure their compatibility with the state’s vote tabulators. Any county that switches to hand-counted ballots would also have to declare preliminary, unofficial election results within 24 hours of polls closing.

Bill sponsor Sen. Kim Hammer (R-Benton) told senators the legislation will bring fairness, clarity, structure and accountability if counties veer away from the statewide voting system currently in use.

“If counties choose to go away from what we’re using now … the cost of the ballot should be borne by the county that chooses to go that route and deviate away from what is currently the acceptable, proven practice,” Hammer said.

So far, Cleburne County is the only one that has voted to use hand-marked and hand-counted paper ballots for elections. (Federal law will still require accessible voting equipment for people with disabilities.) The Cleburne Quorum Court vote in January came after officials were lobbied by the Donald Trump-connected Arkansas Voter Integrity Initiative.

The Arkansas Voter Integrity Initiative is part of the movement to cast doubt on the integrity of U.S. elections following Trump’s loss to President Joe Biden in 2020. Similar efforts popped up around the U.S. last year.

In response to a question from Sen. Tyler Dees (R-Siloam Springs) about the accuracy of Arkansas’ voting system, Hammer noted that the state Board of Election Commissioners audited 10,000 ballots after the 2020 election by retrieving the electronically produced paper ballots out of the machines, counting them by hand and comparing them to the machine tabulations.

“Using that process [they] came up 100% accurate in 2020, which we all know is the election that brought the lightning rod,” Hammer said.

An audit of the 2022 election is underway, he added, noting that so far, auditors have checked 5,000 ballots and all of them are 100% accurate.

“So the theories that are out there in Arkansas are not substantiated by the actual facts,” Hammer told his colleagues.

Sen. John Payton (R-Wilburn) said he has confidence in the state’s voting machines and system, but spoke against the bill and voted against it. He represents Cleburne County.

“If we communicate that confidence to our constituents, maybe we can dispel the mistrust out there,” he said, “but passing a bill like this is just going to build more mistrust.”

“The bill pretends to give them an option to use a paper ballot … but it still ties them” to the equipment they mistrust, he said.

He noted that a lot of the mistrust is based on misinformation about problems in other states that aren’t occurring in Arkansas.

Hammer acknowledged the conspiracy theories circulating about voting machines, saying that he’d received emails, text messages and “calls from 30 states telling me how to run elections in Arkansas” and seen lots of social media posts criticizing him for SB 250.

“I’ve been treated kinder by pro-abortionists than some of my own,” he said.

“The names, the inaccuracies, the lies … and we want to turn over our elections to that mindset?” he said.

“If there’s cheating in the system, they’ve done a really crappy job,” Hammer went on. If there was something wrong with Arkansas elections, “you’d think it would’ve swung the other way,” he said, referring to the supermajority Republicans now enjoy in the Legislature.

“Who brought the distrust? Who owns, who owns the distrust?” he asked.

He told fellow senators that the vote on SB 250 would be a “defining moment.”

Voting against the bill were Payton and Republicans Jonathan Dismang, Scott Flippo, Ben Gilmore, Bryan King and Gary Stubblefield. Voting present were Democrats Linda Chesterfield and Reginald Murdock and Republicans Joshua Bryant, Alan Clark, Mark Johnson and Clint Penzo.

That initial vote resulted in failure of the bill’s emergency clause, which needed a two-thirds majority to enable it to take effect once the governor signs it. The emergency clause passed in a subsequent vote Tuesday of 27-5 with two voting present.

SB 250 will next be considered by a House committee.

This story first appeared in Arkansas Advocate and is being republished through a Creative Commons License. See the original story here.

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