Arkansas House committee passes bill to regulate paper ballot counties

By: - March 13, 2023 6:07 pm
poll worker clean an electronic ballot machine

Senate Bill 250 would place additional regulations on counties that choose to hand count election results. (Photo by Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)

A group of state representatives advanced legislation Monday that would require counties that opt to get rid of voting machines to bear the costs of paper ballots.

The Arkansas House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs passed Senate Bill 250 by Sen. Kim Hammer (R-Benton) on a split voice vote after several hours of debate and testimony that included debunked claims and conspiracies about election integrity.

The bill was introduced in response to a Donald Trump-connected group’s efforts to convince county quorum courts to ditch voting machines for hand-marked ballots and hand-counted election results.

Cleburne County in January became the first county in the state to pivot away from voting machines, but last week, the quorum court repealed that ordinance. An official from the Association of Arkansas Counties told the House committee Monday that the North Arkansas county had passed the January ordinance hastily and may not have realized its full implications.

Opponents of SB250 testified the bill would discourage counties from opting to count election results by hand.

Hammer said the proposal was not “anti-paper ballot,” saying the bill provides guidelines for any counties that do “deviate” from the rest of the state. Arkansas, he said, has a history of free, fair elections.

“Why should other counties have to bear the costs” for counties that choose to conduct elections differently from the proven method, Hammer asked.

SB250 would also require “paper-ballot counties” to use a state-approved machine to perform a preliminary count and declare preliminary, unofficial election results within 24 hours of polls closing.

“Paper-ballot county” is a bit of a misnomer because Arkansas’ current voting machines produce a paper ballot that can be reviewed by the voter. Those ballots are then fed into a ballot-tabulating device that counts the votes and stores the paper ballots.

Checks and audits are performed before and after elections to ensure the voting and counting machines work properly, and Arkansas has consistently received high marks for election security. Post-election audits have also verified that vote-counting machines worked as intended.

Arkansas Secretary of State Director of Elections Leslie Bellamy also testified that county clerks have the freedom to hand count ballots at any time to ensure accuracy during an election.

Rep. Cindy Crawford (R-Fort Smith), a cosponsor of SB250, said she voted against the bill because her constituents went “berserk” after the bill was introduced.

“They do not trust what’s going on,” Crawford said. “I don’t know how to fix that. I’m not smart enough to fix that. But what I am is I’m smart enough to vote for them.”

Conrad Reynolds, the CEO of the Arkansas group pushing for hand counts, told the panel Monday that approving SB250 would amount to choosing convenience over transparency, accountability and accuracy.

Though election experts said that hand counts are inaccurate and unrealistic, especially in urban counties, Reynolds testified that that they aren’t difficult to perform.

“There’s no reason to have a machine count your vote,” he said.

SB250 was already approved by the Senate, and it now goes to the House floor for final legislative approval.

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Hunter Field
Hunter Field

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.