Phillips County election officials struggle to report results to Secretary of State

Unprecedented delay in reporting frustrates candidates, sets up complications for runoffs and legislative meetings

By: - November 17, 2022 8:14 pm

Phillips County Election Commission chairman Wayne Boals (left) and volunteer Sarah Williams (right) count how many absentee and provisional ballots the county received for the Nov. 8 election at the county courthouse Thursday. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

HELENA-WEST HELENA — State Rep. Mark McElroy (R-Tillar) decided to put off celebrating his reelection victory until after Phillips County sent its voting data to the Secretary of State, but that might have become a problem, he said Wednesday.

“The ribs I bought for the celebration are getting stale and green,” he said Wednesday, laughing. “I’d like to get it over with so we can eat those ribs.”

As of Thursday evening, he would still have to wait.

Phillips County remains the only county in Arkansas not to have sent its results from last week’s election to the Secretary of State. Wayne Boals, chairman of the three-person Phillips County Election Commission, said it was possible the information would be online Thursday, but Secretary of State government affairs director Kevin Niehaus said there was no data by 6 p.m.

The votes have been counted, but county officials are struggling to get them online, said Daniel Shults, director of the state Board of Election Commissioners.

“They’ve been advised on how to remedy the situation, but it doesn’t seem to have yet been remedied,” Shults said.

With the election more than a week in the rearview mirror, the lack of Phillips County data on the state website risks running afoul of state law.

County officials are required to electronically send vote totals to the Secretary of State “immediately” after calculating the results, according to the statute. The responsibility belongs to the county election commissioners, the county clerk or an agreement between them.

When reached by phone, Phillips County Clerk Linda Winfield’s office said the election commission holds this responsibility.

County election coordinator Cal Woodridge and the commission have dealt with technological difficulties, including unreliable internet connection, and tense working relationships among county officials, Boals said.

Woodridge went home from the Phillips County courthouse early Thursday afternoon in hopes of better luck uploading election data to the Secretary of State’s website. He declined an interview.

The races on Phillips County ballots included two Congressional offices, seven state executive offices, four statewide ballot measures, one state Senate district, one state House district, one state Supreme Court seat, three county quorum court candidates, three school district taxes, seven school board races and 13 municipal government positions.

Six runoff elections are set for Dec. 6. Helena-West Helena will get another chance to elect its mayor, two aldermen and two school board members. Elaine’s mayoral race is also headed to a runoff.

Boals provided a paper copy of the numbers after counting every ballot except the provisional ballots, which need more time to be verified.

The availability of the numbers on paper, but not on the state website where they are supposed to go, has perplexed and frustrated both local candidates and the Secretary of State’s office.

“I just can’t understand why it would take this long,” said McElroy, who was county judge in bordering Desha County for 20 years before running for the Legislature.

Seeking explanation

State law also requires county election commissioners to issue a public notice 20 days in advance of a general election. The notice must include “the location where a list of appointed election officials, deputy county clerks, or additional deputies hired to conduct early voting can be found and the date the list is available,” the statute states.

This location was not included in the election proclamation the Phillips County Election Commission sent the Helena World newspaper, which prints every Wednesday, publisher Andrew Bagley said. The commission sent the proclamation required in advance of the Dec. 6 runoffs on Wednesday but still did not include the location with the list of election officials.

The courthouse’s internet connection problems prevented the commissioners from issuing the entirety of the pre-election notice in October, Boals said.

Bagley is a former member of both the Phillips County Quorum Court and the Helena-West Helena School Board. He said he has never seen the county election commission have this much difficulty counting and distributing results in the past two decades, both as a candidate and as a local journalist.

McElroy said he also has seen nothing like what is happening in Phillips County, based on his experience in Desha County government.

“At midnight, 1 a.m. at the latest, we knew all the numbers, and everybody else knew the numbers,” he said. “The public knew the numbers, the newspaper knew the numbers and everything was out there.”

He has not been the only candidate frustrated by the slow reporting of Phillips County’s vote totals. Martin Rawls, a Republican elected to his first term on the Phillips County Quorum Court, has tweeted about it regularly since Election Day, calling it “quite embarrassing and shameful” on Nov. 9.

Rawls said in a statement that he hopes to use his new position to help make elections run more smoothly in Phillips County before the 2024 election.

“We cannot expect voters to be enthusiastic about the election process when it is taking this long to see results,” he said.

State Rep. Aaron Pilkington (R-Knoxville) tweeted an open letter to Phillips County Judge Clark Hall on Wednesday, calling the lack of reporting to the Secretary of State “troubling” and floating the idea of asking the Legislature’s Joint Performance Review Committee to investigate.

“However, I would first like to request from you an explanation of the issues that may have been encountered in your county leading to the delay,” Pilkington wrote.

Hall is unavailable until Monday, a receptionist at his office said.

Variety of complications

The commission had to meticulously duplicate several ballots that the voting machines could not read, including all 152 absentee ballots, said Boals and Sarah Williams, a volunteer who helped calculate the results.

The machines could not process the creases in the absentee ballots that had been folded in order to be mailed to the commission, Williams said.

Additionally, several of the first ballots printed for the county included an outdated machine code that did not match the current machines.

Boals and Williams both said they do not know who was responsible for making sure the machine code on the ballots was correct.

An election monitor sent by the state Board of Election Commissioners helped count ballots, including duplicating the ones that needed it, until Nov. 10, Boals said.

He also said both the county courthouse wi-fi and the Secretary of State website have malfunctioned to the point that Woodridge has had to enter some of the data manually.

The commissioners plan to certify the county’s results and send them via snail mail to the Secretary of State’s office on Wednesday, the 15th day after Election Day and the legally required deadline for certification, Boals said.

He added that the development of tension between county officials also complicated their election coordination efforts.

Woodridge’s predecessor, Barry Burrell, had a falling-out with Winfield and the commission in May when the primary elections were in full swing, Boals said. The commission replaced Burrell with Woodridge, who had served as election coordinator a few years previously.

“It was a whole lot different back then,” Boals said. “We didn’t have [the same] machines, so he got started behind the eight-ball.”

The Phillips County Election Commission has had the same lineup of Boals, John Huff and Mark Lynn since 2019, so they have handled elections as a group before. However, Boals said Huff and Lynn took Burrell’s side in the dispute with Winfield.

“I’m trying to be the referee between those three,” Boals said.

Later consequences

Although McElroy is already in the state Legislature, the redrawing of state House districts last year led him to run in Phillips County for the first time. His win means he is most likely the first Republican to represent the usually Democratic county in the Legislature since Reconstruction, Bagley reported in the Helena World.

The delayed transmission of the county’s results to the state is one reason the House of Representatives postponed a meeting scheduled for Thursday to select members’ committee assignments, McElroy said. A recount in Faulkner County was another reason to put off the meeting.

“We’re pushing up into Thanksgiving and Christmas, and people are getting ready for deer season,” McElroy said. “Everybody’s moving around, and it’s going to be hard to find a day where everybody can be there [at the Capitol] and get this done.”

Bagley said the ongoing issues in Phillips County might delay the printing and distribution of early and absentee ballots for the Dec. 6 runoffs. Early voting will begin Nov. 29.

Boals said Winfield “has complete control” of early and absentee ballots, but Winfield said she cannot distribute them until she gets them from the election commission.

“I can’t give out anything I don’t have,” she said, declining further comment.

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Tess Vrbin, Arkansas Advocate
Tess Vrbin, Arkansas Advocate

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri. A Midwesterner by birth, she graduated from the University of Missouri's journalism school in 2019.

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